Guessing game begins on Hurricane Irene insured losses

NEW YORK ― Hurricane Irene is expected to have caused substantial property losses, though figures are still hard to come by because of uncertainty about wind damage, catastrophe modeling company Eqecat said Monday.

Shares in some of the world’s largest reinsurers rose in early trading, though, as traders assumed insurers would make it through the storm more cheaply than had been feared.

Millions of people throughout the northeastern United States were in the dark and flooded, particularly in rural Vermont and suburban New Jersey. Totaling those losses is expected to take time, as the process of figuring out how many of the affected actually had government-backed flood insurance.

By some accounts the insured losses in the Carolinas were as little as $200 million after the storm made landfall there Saturday, but impacts appear to have been far worse as the storm made its way up the coast.

“Irene is a major event and will be responsible for significant levels of insured losses to property and people,” Eqecat said in a loss report early Monday morning. It expects to have more figures later in the day.

Prior to the hurricane, some had feared Irene could be a $10 billion event or more. Analysts and insurance executives suggested something north of $15 billion could bring a structural change to the insurance market, pushing prices higher around the world after three years of weakness.

It is unclear if Irene can hit that market. Between the Caribbean and the Carolinas, Eqecat has estimated losses of no more than $1 billion. Its competitor AIR Worldwide has forecast losses of $1.1 billion just for the Caribbean, though. The third key player in catastrophe modeling for the insurance industry, RMS, has not weighed in with a figure yet.

Shares in the world’s top three reinsurers ― Munich Re, Swiss Re and Hannover Re ― rose 3 percent as analysts said they did not expect any losses to force a change to 2011 estimates.

This year has already been the most expensive for natural disasters in the history of the world, mostly because of the costs of the March earthquake in Japan.