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MUNICH, Germany-While worldwide natural catastrophes caused unprecedented damage in 1995, insurers' losses were less than in previous years, a leading reinsurer says.

The regions most badly hit by natural catastrophes in 1995 were not heavily insured, which gave insurers some "breathing space," according to Munich Reinsurance Co.

The Munich, Germany-based reinsurer released some initial figures in advance of its annual survey on global natural catastrophes, which will be published in March. The final report will be available to the public.

Munich Re bases its survey on reports of catastrophe losses in the news media, such as wire services, and other publications, which it compiles for analysis each year.

A worldwide review of total costs of natural catastrophes in 1995 shows record losses in excess of $180 billion-nearly three times the amount in 1994, the previous worst year with losses of $65 billion, Munich Re says.

January 1995's Kobe quake was the most costly natural catastrophe in history with a total economic loss of approximately $100 billion. Of that amount, though, insured losses totaled only about $3 billion. The quake reduced parts of the large Japanese industrial city and port to rubble. More than 6,000 people died and 300,000 were left homeless (BI, Oct. 9, 1995).

Other notable events include January floods on Europe's Rhine, Mosel and Maas rivers, which exceeded the highest flood mark of the century set only a year earlier, and an exceptional series of tropical windstorms in the Caribbean, United States and East Asia.

Munich Re recorded a new all-time high of 600 natural catastrophes worldwide, which claimed 18,000 lives, up from 580 catastrophes and 10,150 lives in 1994.

But because insurance density in the hardest hit regions was relatively low, insured losses accounted for less than those reported in the two previous record years, 1992 and 1994.

In 1995, insured cat losses worldwide amounted to $14 billion compared with $28 billion in 1992 and $17 billion in 1994, Munich Re found.

Since 1986, the insurance industry has had to cope with heavy claims burdens from natural catastrophes. As a result, Munich Re concludes that fewer insured losses in 1995 are a welcome-but perhaps short-breather for the insurance industry.

"Indications are stronger that the gradually changing world climate is having an effect on the occurrence of natural catastrophes, especially in the case of floods and windstorms."

For the Australian market, Munich Re predicts an easing period with an end to the "extremely long-lasting El Nino phase," which warmed the tropical Pacific and caused extreme drought.

A change in weather patterns is also expected for the Pacific coast of the United States and the Caribbean, where tropical winds caused exceptionally heavy precipitation and hurricane activity.

Copies of the survey will be available in March by contacting Rainer Kuppers at Munich Reinsurance Co., Koeniginstrasse 107, D-80791 Munich, Germany; 49/890.