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When it comes to weather-related catastrophes in the U.S., 2011 was a record year. A dozen disasters each caused damage costing at least a billion dollars. And one result, reports NPR's David Schaper: those tornadoes, blizzards, floods, fires and hurricanes are driving up homeowner insurance rates.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Some of the nation's largest insurance companies, including Allstate, State Farm and Travelers, are indicating they will be increasing homeowners' and other property insurance rates as much as 10 percent this year, and it's largely because of what happened last year.

ROBERT HARTWIG: 2011 was really one of the most dramatic and most expensive years in global history, as well as here in the United States.

SCHAPER: Robert Hartwig is president of the Insurance Information Institute, a New York-based insurance industry trade association. He says weather-related catastrophes caused close to $35 billion in insured damages last year in the U.S., and more than $70 billion in total economic losses.

HARTWIG: And the year was extraordinary, because it wasn't characterized here in the United States by a single large event. It was actually a large number of more modest events, modest being one or two billion.

SCHAPER: The list includes Hurricane Irene, a blizzard, heat waves, drought and wildfires in Texas and the Southwest. There was flooding along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, and hundreds of tornados, including those that killed more than 300 people in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, and the one that obliterated Joplin, Missouri, killing 161 people. Robert Hartwig says it wasn't just the unusually high number of catastrophic weather events, but in 2011, he says, location was everything.

HARTWIG: We take an event like the Joplin tornado. Had that very same storm occurred three or four miles north, three or four miles south, there would have been very little damage. Same thing with the tornados that impacted Tuscaloosa.

SCHAPER: And some of the places hit hard by big storms last year are not areas of the country that insurance companies have expected to have a great deal of risk.

HARTWIG: We have, the last four years in a row, really seen extreme weather away from the coasts, away from seismically active areas, areas that historically haven't got that much attention, from a modeling perspective. And that's likely to change.

SCHAPER: So as insurance companies revise and recalculate their risk models, most of us will be paying more for property insurance coverage this year. David Schaper, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.


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