INSURERS were braced last night for massive claims from the disaster running into billions of pounds.
Insurers, including Lloyds of London, have already paid out billions of pounds this year because of natural disasters.
A study from Swiss Re, the global reinsurance company, claims that about 21,000 people in 2004 were killed by catastrophe, which caused overall economic losses of about $105 billion (£54.6 billion) worldwide.
The earthquake yesterday may have claimed many more lives than the total last year. The waves caused vast destruction of property in India, Indonesia, Maldives and Sri Lanka, and further damage in countries in East Africa.
Last year property insurers had to bear the brunt of the claims, about $42 billion. Storms in the United States and Japan led to the huge extent of total losses, with Florida struck by four hurricanes in August and September that caused losses of about $56 billion, including insured losses of $27 billion.
The most devastating hurricanes were Charley and Ivan. Charley caused an estimated $16 billion of damage, $7 billion of which was insured.
Japan was also hit by the most typhoons for decades, with Songda causing an estimated $6.2 billion of damage. A third of the claims, $2.5 billion, were against property. A less destructive typhoon, Tokage, caused damage estimated at $1.4 billion.
Japan was also hit by an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.9, which caused economic losses estimated at up to $28 billion.
The record year for catastrophe claims means that the price of insurance has remained stable rather than falling, as had been the trend.
The share prices of companies that face exposure to yesterdays disaster could come under pressure when markets reopen in the United States today and in Britain tomorrow.