No one really knows how much the recent Southeast Asian earthquake and tsunamis will cost life insurers and life reinsurers, according to analysts at Fitch Ratings, Chicago.[@@]

An earthquake off the coast of Sumatra with a magnitude of 9.0 caused enormous waves, or tsunamis, that appear to have killed more than 65,000 residents of India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and other countries.

Insurance company executives in the affected region and the rest of the world mourned the terrible human suffering caused by the disasters.

The earthquake and tsunamis “are a tremendous tragedy that resulted in a huge loss of life, and left millions of people in need of help,” according to a statement by Maurice Greenberg, chairman of American International Group Inc., New York.

AIG and the Starr Foundation, an affiliated charity, will be contributing to relief efforts, and AIG will match employee contributions to a disaster relief fund 100%, AIG says.

The experts are just starting to assess the effect of the tragic disasters on claim costs.

“At present, there are no reliable estimates of the insured losses resulting from this earthquake,” Fitch analysts write in a comment on the disasters. “To date, none of the major catastrophe modeling firms has issued any insured loss estimates.”

It’s not clear how many of the victims who lived in the affected region owned substantial amounts of life insurance, but the tsunamis hit destinations that were popular with tourists at the peak of tourism season. A high percentage of the foreign tourists killed may have owned life insurance policies with a face value of $100,000 or higher.

The event “has the potential to generate significant life insurance and travel accident claims,” the Fitch analysts write. “It will likely be some time before all of the life insurance claims are submitted as large numbers of people remain unaccounted for.”

Losses to some regional insurers may be large, and the disasters could increase demand for finite risk reinsurance products, the analysts write.

Researchers at Swiss Reinsurance Company, Zurich, wrote about tsunami risk in a 2002 “risk whistle paper.”

Tsunami research, detection and warning programs are common in the Pacific Ocean, where earthquakes cause frequent tsunamis, but similar programs are rare in other parts of the world, such as the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.

Scientists have pointed out that an earthquake or a large asteroid hit could cause a tsunami in the Atlantic Ocean, and that a volcano in the Canary Islands could cause a landslide that would push 130-foot waves toward the coasts of the United States and other countries bordering on the Atlantic, according to the Swiss Re analysis.

“This type of global geophysical event is low in frequency but high in impact, having a large overall loss potential both in terms of economic and insured losses,” the Swiss Re researchers write.

Studies about the merits of establishing a tsunami warning system for the countries bordering on the Atlantic “would certainly be justified,” the Swiss Re analysts write.

The Swiss Re report is on the Web at http://www.swissre.com/INTERNET/pwswpspr.nsf/fmBookMarkFrameSet?ReadForm&BM=../vwAllbyIDKeyLu/SGRR-59NH72?OpenDocument

The Web site of the Tsunami Society, Honolulu, which posts journal articles about the threat of tsunamis in the Atlantic as well as the Pacific, is at http://www.sthjournal.org/