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Natural and man-made disasters caused $US186 billion ($A178.19 billion) in damages worldwide last year, according to a calculation released by the Swiss re-insurance group Swiss Re.

Of that sum, insurance companies were exposed to claims of up to $77 billion, which would make 2012 the third most costly year on record, it added in a statement.

Hurricane Sandy in the United States cost an estimated $70 billion in losses, with about $35 billion covered by insurers, making it the second most expensive storm on record after Hurricane Katrina hammered New Orleans and nearby regions in 2005.

A series of earthquakes in Italy contributed further to the 2012 total, Swiss Re said.

The amount of insured losses was nonetheless well below that of 2011, when a record number of earthquakes and the Japanese tsunami resulted in insurance claims that totalled $126 billion, the group noted.