Category Archives: Disaster Resilience

Virtual Discussion: Responding to Disaster During a Crisis

On September 24 a virtual discussion hosted by the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Advisory Committee will inform community leaders about how new science and technology applications are enhancing resilience and protecting lifeline systems and networks.

During the discussion experts will describe how technologies can inform risk-based decision-making in areas of neighborhood health monitoring, supply chains, evacuation planning, crisis communications, and information sharing among frontline responders. Innovation in predictive analytics, modeling and simulation, and mobility offer new solutions to tackle immediate challenges and prepare for emerging threats.

The panel will also cover how new public-private partnerships are accelerating new solutions and business models to prepare for day-to-day emergencies.

The discussion will include Michel Léonard, PhD, CBE, Vice President & Senior Economist, Insurance Information Institute; and Richard Seline, Managing Director, ResilientH20Partners.

About the virtual discussion:

September 24, 2020. 1:00 – 2:30 p.m. ET

Click here to register.

Speakers:

David Maurstad, Deputy Associate Administrator, FEMA

Duane Caneva, Chief Medical Officer, DHS Countering WMD Office

Ted Smith, Ph.D., Wastewater Based Epidemiology, Professor of Environmental Medicine, University of Louisville and Advisor to Louisville Mayor, Greg Fischer

Catherine Cross, Deputy Under Secretary, DHS Science and Technology Directorate (S&T)

David Corman, Program Director, Cyber-Physical Systems and Smart and Connected Communities, National Science Foundation

Richard Seline, Executive Director, Accelerate H2O, Houston, Texas

Michel Léonard, Vice President and Senior Economist, Insurance Information Institute

Moderator: David Alexander, Director of Resilience Research and Partnerships, DHS S&T

The Insurance Information Institute’s Resilience Accelerator was created to build awareness and adoption of insurance as a frontline defense against the impact of extreme weather events on households, businesses and communities.

If It Can Rain, It Can Flood: Buy Flood Insurance

Rivers swollen by Hurricane Sally’s rains have devastated parts of the Florida Panhandle and south Alabama, and the storm’s remnants are forecast to spread the flooding to Georgia and the Carolinas.

Many of the properties damaged will doubtless be found to be uninsured, compounding homeowners’ misery.

A well-known coverage gap

The flood insurance protection gap has been well documented. A recent Triple-I paper –  Hurricane Season: More Than Just Wind and Water – states that “about 90 percent of all natural disasters in the United States involve flooding” and cites experts strenuously urging everyone to buy flood insurance.

“Any home can flood,” says Dan Kaniewski — managing director for public sector innovation at Marsh & McLennan and former deputy administrator for resilience at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). “Even if you’re well outside a floodplain…. Get flood insurance. Whether you’re a homeowner or a renter or a business — get flood insurance.”

Dr. Rick Knabb — on-air hurricane expert for the Weather Channel, speaking at Triple-I’s 2019 Joint Industry Forum — is similarly emphatic.

“If it can rain where you live,” he said, “it can flood where you live.”

Despite such warnings, even in designated flood zones, the protection gap remains large. A McKinsey & Co. analysis of flood insurance purchase rates in areas most affected by three Category 4 hurricanes that made landfall in the United States — Harvey, Irma, and Maria — found that as many as 80 percent of homeowners in Texas, 60 percent in Florida, and 99 percent in Puerto Rico lacked flood insurance.

To make matters worse, a recent analysis by the nonprofit First Street Foundation found the United States to be woefully underprepared for damaging floods. The report identified “around 1.7 times the number of properties as having substantial risk,” compared with FEMA’s designation.

“This equates to a total of 14.6 million properties across the country at substantial risk, of which 5.9 million property owners are currently unaware of or underestimating the risk they face,” the foundation says.

A more recent Triple-I analysis, conducted in advance of Hurricane Sally, found that flood insurance purchase rates in the counties most likely to be affected by the storm were “remarkably low.”

“In Taylor County, Ga., for example, just 0.09 percent of properties are insured against flooding,” Triple-I wrote.

NOT covered by homeowners insurance

Flood damage is excluded under standard homeowners and renters insurance policies. However, flood coverage is available as a separate policy from the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), administered by FEMA, and from a growing number of private insurers, thanks to sophisticated flood models that have made insurers more comfortable writing this once “untouchable” risk.

Invest in resilience

If it seems as if you’ve heard me beat this drum before, you’re right.  I take flood and flood insurance very personally.

After Hurricane Irene flooded my inland New Jersey basement in August 2011, destroying many irreplaceable items, it was my flood insurance that enabled me to have a French drain and two powerful pumps installed that have since kept my historically damp basement bone dry – even during Superstorm Sandy the following year.   

Student Hacker Teams Showcase Their Winning Skills at PennApps 3rd Annual Hack-for-Resilience Competition

From Friday, September 11 to Sunday, September 13, the third annual the Hack-for-Resilience competition (“H4R”) was hosted by Wharton Risk Center and the Insurance Information Institute’s (“Triple-I”) Resilience Accelerator as part of the PennAppsXXI hackathon. This year’s competition yielded an impressive array of powerful data, robotics and AI solutions, as well as unique perspectives on catastrophe preparedness and mitigation from the next generation of innovators and leaders.

Organized into two categories—Best Overall Hack for Resilience and Best Application of Insurtech—Hack-for-Resilience III was a virtual event conducted over 36 hours spanning 8:00 pm Friday night through 8:00 am Sunday morning. Students used Slack, Zoom and HopIn digital collaboration platforms, to recruit and select teammates, ideate, seek guidance from mentors, and produce and demonstrate hacks.

This year’s H4R attracted 38 teams from as far away as British Columbia, Brasil and India. Some interesting trends emerged: For 2020, several hacks used gamification—applying the principles and characteristics of video gaming to tasks and problem-solving—as a technique to teach and test catastrophe resilience. This year also saw numerous student innovators drawing inspiration from their own families’ recent natural disaster experiences.

A panel of judges that included Dr. Carolyn Kousky, Wharton Risk Center’s Executive Director and Dr. Michel Leonard, the Triple-I’s Vice President and Senior Economist, selected first- and second-place winning hacks in both categories. They are:

BEST APPLICATION OF INSURTECH

Winner: INSURA

Developed as a way to get households into a “resilience frame of mind,” INSURA uses location and historical loss data, to incentivize catastrophe resilience by making a game of preparedness and mitigation. Users enter information about their homes and known risks, and INSURA suggests mitigation activities and common household maintenance chores. Players are scored by calculated potential insurance premium savings.

Runner-up: CLAIM CART

Created in response to recent wildfires, CLAIM CART makes it easier for users to file claims for insured losses by guiding them step-by-step through creating an effective household inventory to receive maximum payout for their lost possessions. The app works by querying insurer and public loss and item pricing data to help people prepare for a disaster by more accurately presenting and organizing information about the contents of their home.

BEST OVERALL HACK-FOR-RESILIENCE

Winner: AIR.LY

Inspired by the development team members experiences during recent California wildfires, AIR.LY is billed as “the one-stop shop [for finding] safe outdoor retreats during wildfires.” AIR.LY helps delivers vital, in-real-time help to an often-overlooked group: persons afflicted with respiratory issues or other health complications.

Runner-up: Saving Our Souls (S.O.S.)

Designed and built by a team of high-schoolers, S.O.S. is story-mode game that allows players to choose disaster scenarios that present multiple options to instruct on fire and flood safety, as well as effective preparedness and evacuation practices.

First place-winning team members will each receive a $200 Amazon gift card for their winning hacks, while the runners-up each will receive a $100 Amazon gift card. New for 2020 is an additional reward for first place winners, entry into a Resilience Accelerator Lightning Rounds ideas showcase, where teams will demo their winning hacks to a panel of insurance innovation leaders and investors.

The Wharton Risk Center and the Triple-I wish to again extend our thanks to all who contributed to making Hack-for-Resilience III and PennAppsXXI a rousing success!

By James Ballot,  Senior Advisor, Strategic Communications, Triple-I

Policyholder Surplus Matters: Here’s Why

Perhaps the most emotionally compelling data point invoked by those who would compel insurers – through litigation and legislation – to pay business-interruption claims explicitly excluded from the policies they wrote is the property/casualty insurance industry’s nearly $800 billion policyholder surplus.

 Many Americans hear “surplus” and think of a bit of cash they have stashed away for emergencies. And when you consider that nearly 40 percent of Americans surveyed by the Federal Reserve said they would either have to borrow or sell something to cover an unexpected $400 expense – or couldn’t pay it at all – that number may sound like overkill. 

Not as much as you think

But policyholder surplus isn’t a “rainy day fund.” It’s an essential part of the industry’s ability to keep the promises it makes to policyholders. And although a number like $800 billion may raise eyebrows, when we look more closely at its components, the amount available to cover claims turns out to be considerably less.

Insurers are regulated on a state-by-state basis. Regulators require them to hold a certain amount in reserve to pay claims based on each insurer’s own risk profile. The aggregation of these reserves – required by every state for every insurer doing business in those states – accounts for about half the oft-cited industry surplus.

Call it $400 billion, for simplicity’s sake.

Each company’s regulator-required surplus can be thought of as that company’s “running on empty” mark – the point at which alarms go off and regulators start talking about requiring it to set even more aside to make sure no policyholders are left in a lurch.

By extension, $400 billion is where alarms begin going off for the entire industry.

It gets worse – or better, depending on your perspective.

In addition to state regulators’ requirements, the private rating agencies that gauge insurers’ financial strength and claims-paying ability don’t want to see reserves get anywhere near “Empty.” To get a strong rating from A.M. Best, Fitch, S&P, or Moody’s, insurers have to keep even more in reserve. 

Why do private agency ratings matter? Consumers and businesses use them to determine what insurer they’ll buy coverage from. Also, stronger ratings can contribute to lower borrowing expenses, which can help keep insurers’ operating costs – and, in turn, policyholders’ premiums – at reasonable levels. 

So, let’s say these additional reserves amount to about $200 billion for the industry. The nearly $800 billion surplus we started with now falls to about $200 billion.

To cover claims by all personal and commercial policyholders in a given year without prompting regulatory and rating agency actions that could drive up insurers’ costs and policyholders’ premiums.

Which brings us to today.

Losses ordinary and extraordinary

In the first quarter of 2020, the industry experienced its largest-ever quarterly decline in surplus, to $771.9 billion. This decline was due, in large part, to declines in stock value related to the economic recession sparked by the coronavirus pandemic.

Nevertheless, the industry remains financially strong, in large part because the bulk of insurers’ investments are in investment-grade corporate and governmental bonds. And it’s a good thing, too, because the conditions underlying that surplus decline preceded an extremely active hurricane season, atypical wildfire activity, and damages related to civil unrest approaching levels not seen since 1992 – involving losses that are not yet reflected in the surplus.

Insured losses from this year’s Hurricane Isaias are estimated in the vicinity of $5 billion. Hurricane Laura’s losses could, by some estimates, be as “small” as $4 billion or as large as $13 billion.

And the Atlantic hurricane season has not yet peaked.

The 2020 wildfire season is off to a horrific start. From January 1 to September 8, 2020, there were 41,051 wildfires, compared with 35,386 in the same period in 2019, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. About 4.7 million acres were burned in the 2020 period, compared with 4.2 million acres in 2019.

In California alone, wildfires have already burned 2.2 million acres in 2020 — more than any year on record. For context, insured losses for California’s November 2018 fires were estimated at more than $11 billion.

And the 2020 wildfire season still has a way to go.

All this is on top of routine claims for property and casualty losses.

Four billion here, 11 billion there – pretty soon we’re talking about “real money,” against available reserves that are far smaller than they at first appear.

No end in sight

Oh, yeah – and the pandemic-fueled recession isn’t expected to reverse any time soon. Economic growth worldwide remains depressed, with nearly every country experiencing declines in gross domestic product (GDP) – the total value of goods and services produced. GDP growth for the world’s 10 largest insurance markets is expected to decrease by 6.99 percent in 2020, compared to Triple-I’s previous estimate of a 4.9 percent decrease. 

If insurers were required to pay business-interruption claims they never agreed to cover – and, therefore, didn’t reserve for – the cost to the industry related to small businesses alone could be as high as $383 billion per month.

This would bankrupt the industry, leaving many policyholders uninsured and insurance itself an untenable business proposition.

Fortunately, Americans seem to be beginning to get this.  A recent poll by Future of American Insurance and Reinsurance (FAIR) found the majority of Americans believe the federal government should bear the financial responsibility for helping businesses stay afloat during the coronavirus pandemic. Only 16 percent of respondents said insurers should bear the responsibility, and only 8 percent said they believe lawsuits against insurers are the best path for businesses to secure financial relief.

Further Reading:

POLL: GOVERNMENT SHOULD PROVIDE BUSINESS INTERRUPTION SUPPORT

TRIPLE-I GLOBAL OUTLOOK: CONTINUED PRESSURE ON INVESTMENTS & PREMIUMS

BATTLING FIRES, CALIFORNIA ALSO STRUGGLES TO KEEP HOMEOWNERS INSURED

LAURA LOSS ESTIMATES: $4 BILLION TO $13 BILLION

ATYPICAL WILDFIRE ACTIVITY? OF COURSE — IT’S 2020

SWISS RE: A KATRINA-LIKE HURRICANE COULD CAUSE UP TO $200 BILLION IN DAMAGE TODAY

U.K. BUSINESS INTERRUPTION LITIGATION SEEMS UNLIKELY TO AFFECT U.S. INSURERS

RECESSION, PANDEMIC TO IMPACT P/C UNDERWRITING RESULTS, NEW REPORT SHOWS

BUSINESS INTERRUPTION VS. EVENT CANCELLATION: WHAT’S THE BIG DIFFERENCE?

CHUBB CEO SAYS BUSINESS INTERRUPTION POLICIES ARE A GOOD VALUE AND WORK AS THEY SHOULD

TRIPLE-I CHIEF ECONOMIST: P/C INDUSTRY STRONG, DESPITE SURPLUS DROP

INSURED LOSSES DUE TO CIVIL UNREST SEEN NEARING 1992 LEVELS

COVID-19 AND SHIPPING RISK

BUSINESS INTERRUPTION COVERAGE: POLICY LANGUAGE RULES

Disaster Resilience Is Focus of Triple-I, U. Penn Student Competition

By James Ballot, Senior Advisor, Strategic Communications, Triple-I

For the third year straight, the Insurance Information Institute (Triple-I) and the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center (Wharton Risk Center) at the University of Pennsylvania are co-sponsoring a student competition aimed at developing innovative solutions to real-world disaster resilience problems.

Held virtually, the third annual “Hack-for-Resilience” begins on Friday, Sept. 11 and concludes on Sunday, Sept. 13 as part of PennAppsXXI, the nation’s oldest student-run hackathon. The word “hack,” in the context of a hackathon, describes how multiple technologies can be used in new and innovative ways.

“This event allows the Triple-I and its Resilience Accelerator partners to bring together insurers and student innovators who have the same goal—to create new products and services that will reduce the risks people face from natural disasters,” said Sean Kevelighan, CEO, Triple-I. The Triple-I’s Resilience Accelerator was launched in 2019 to reduce the impact of extreme weather events on households and communities through insurance. 

The 2020 edition of this competition will give entrants from midnight on Saturday, Sept. 12 through 9 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 13 to show their skills. During this time, teams of up to four students will conceive, test, and deliver working apps while others develop hardware solutions, Internet of Things (IoT) protocols, and data tools that can save lives and reduce property damage in the wake of a natural disaster.

 “Building resilience to disasters is more important than ever,” said Dr. Carolyn Kousky, Executive Director, Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center, University of Pennsylvania.

A team of judges from Wharton Risk Center and Triple-I will award first- and second-place cash prizes in two categories: “Best Overall Hack” and “The Most Outstanding Application of Insurtech,” which is defined broadly as either a product or service that improves the insurance customer experience. The winning teams will be announced on Sunday evening, Sept. 13.

New to this year’s “Hack-for-Resilience” is that both first-place prize winners will participate in the Resilience Accelerator’s Lightning Round innovation showcase on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020.

The first-place prizes in 2019 were awarded to the creators of Phoenix, an autonomous drone with the capacity to track and extinguish fires (Best Overall Hack) and WildFire Protect, a parametric insurance product which would pay a policyholder immediately after they incurred a wildfire-related property loss (The Most Outstanding Application of Insurtech).

You can follow this year’s competition on social media via the hashtag #H4R2020

Battling Fires, California Also Struggles to Keep Homeowners Insured

The Los Angeles office of the National Weather Service predicted prolonged, potentially record-setting heat and dangerous weather conditions throughout California this summer – and, some experts expect it to continue for some time beyond.

“If you like 2020, you’re going to love 2050,” said Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, in a recent Los Angeles Times article.

These conditions can only exacerbate this year’s atypical wildfire activity in the state. So, it should be no surprise that California is grappling with how to stop insurers from abandoning fire-prone areas, leaving countless homeowners at risk.

“Years of megafires have caused huge losses for insurance companies, a problem so severe that, last year, California temporarily banned insurers from canceling policies on some 800,000 homes in or near risky parts of the state,” The New York Times reports. “However, that ban is about to expire and can’t be renewed, and a recent plan to deal with the problem fell apart in a clash between insurers and consumer advocates.”

Insurers are widely expected to continue their retreat.

“The marketplace has largely collapsed” in high-risk areas, said Graham Knaus, executive director of the California State Association of Counties. “It’s a very large geographic area of the state that is facing this.”

California, where regulations lean toward consumer protection, is particularly challenged. The state doesn’t let insurers set premiums based on what they expect in future damages. They can only set rates based on prior losses. They also aren’t allowed to pass along reinsurance costs to policyholders – costs that are expected to rise as fire risks worsen.

State lawmakers introduced a bill to let insurers writing coverage in wildfire-prone areas incorporate climate predictions and other costs into their rate requests in return for making coverage more available and offering discounts to people who take steps to reduce their home’s vulnerability.

Insurers supported the change, as did the counties association and the union representing firefighters. But the bill faced strong opposition from consumer groups, who ultimately prevailed. Last month, the state senate stripped most of the provisions from the bill and directed the insurance commissioner to review the current rules and report back to the legislature in two years.

The legislature ended its session without acting on the revised version. Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara said his focus now is working with high-risk communities to reduce their wildfire risk enough that insurers will keep offering coverage without big rate increases.

“If Californians do our part to protect homes from wildfire,” Lara said, the industry should respond by agreeing to insure those homes.

Janet Ruiz, Triple-I’s director of strategic communications, said, “Insurers in California are working with legislators and the California Department of Insurance to find solutions to keep homeowners insured in wildfire risk areas. The industry supports mitigation efforts, the California FAIR Plan, and the proposed IMAP program.”

Laura Loss Estimates:
$4 Billion to $13 Billion

This blog post has been updated based on new information received since it was first published on September 4, 2020.

Hurricane Laura may have caused as little as $4 billion of insured damage or as much as $13 billion, according to early estimates.

Property information, analytics and data provider CoreLogic said residential and commercial insured losses from Hurricane Laura in Louisiana and Texas will come in at between $8 billion and $12 billion. Most of the property damage occurred in southwest Louisiana, where Laura made landfall early as a Category 4 hurricane with 150 mph winds.

Catastrophe risk modeler RMS puts the range between $9 billion and $13 billion. This includes wind and storm surge losses of between $8.5 billion and $12 billion, inland flood losses of $100 million to $400 million, and National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) losses of $400 million to $600 million.

Catastrophe risk modeling firm Air Worldwide said it expects losses related to Laura to fall in the $4 billion to $8 billion range. The combination of the storm’s track through less-populated areas and its relatively small “Rmax” – the distance from the center of the storm to the location of the maximum winds – should keep insured losses down somewhat, the company said.

Cat risk modeler Karen Clark & Co. estimates insured onshore property losses from wind and storm surge will likely amount to $8.7 billion in the U.S. and $200 million in the Caribbean. Its estimate includes the privately insured wind and storm surge damage to residential, commercial, and industrial properties and automobiles but not losses covered by the NFIP or losses to offshore assets.

All estimates are subject to change as more information becomes available.

Hurricane Season:
More Than Wind & Water

Under the best of circumstances, the Atlantic hurricane season is a challenging time. Despite improved forecasting and analytical tools, pre-storm communication, and engineering, hurricane-related losses continue to climb.

But the 2020 season hasn’t come during the best of circumstances. This extremely active season arrived on the heels of a pandemic that hasn’t ebbed, accompanied by civil unrest and atypical wildfire activity that could draw attention and resources away from preparation and post-storm aid.

And, as if that wasn’t enough, it falls in the middle of what is arguably the most contentious, chaotic U.S. election year in modern history.

To say these new variables complicate resilience would be a gross understatement in a year whose (to use the technical insurance phrase) “general weirdness” would be difficult to overstate.

So, in a paper published today we review the current state of hurricane resilience – how forecasting, modeling, preparation, and mitigation have evolved – and how the insurance industry is working to help communities bounce back from hurricanes.

Demographics more than climate change

Nine of the 10 costliest hurricanes in U.S. history have occurred since 2004, and 2017, 2018, and 2019 were the largest back-to-back-to-back insured property loss years in U.S. history. Many would instinctively chalk up such numbers to climate change. But a careful look at the data suggests climate change isn’t the predominant driver of losses.

U.S. Census Bureau data indicate that the number of housing units in the United States increased most dramatically since 1940 in areas that are most vulnerable to weather-related damage. They also show that new homes are bigger and more expensive than in past decades.

Bigger homes full of more valuables, more cars and infrastructure in disaster-prone locales – these, more than climate trends, seem to be the dominant factors driving losses.

Not more, but wetter

Hurricanes may not be more frequent or significantly more intense due to climate change, but they seem to be getting wetter. Inland flooding has caused more deaths in the United States in the past 30 years than any other hurricane-related threat.

Early in the 2020 season, Tropical Storm Cristobal made landfall along southeastern Louisiana and triggered flash flooding as far inland as northwest Wisconsin.  

“As the atmosphere continues to warm, storms can hold more moisture and bring more rainfall,” said Triple-I non-resident scholar and Colorado State University atmospheric scientist Dr. Philip Klotzbach. This trend could be exacerbated if, as some experts expect, storms begin traveling more slowly, adding to the moisture they would pick up from the ocean and drop over land.

This is why experts we talk with say, “Get flood insurance.”

We’ve come a long way – and have further to go

Our paper also looks at the evolution of hurricane modeling and forecasting, as well as developments in preparation and mitigation.

Better data and improved modeling have made private insurers comfortable writing coverage, like flood insurance, that was previously considered “untouchable” and enabled the creation of entirely new types of insurance products.

But challenges remain. Experts disagree as to which models are best, and the proprietary nature of these models can make it hard for regulators to determine whether filed rates based on them are unfairly discriminatory.

Hurricane preparation and damage mitigation have benefited from improved communication and public planning.

“Many people still don’t evacuate the way they should,” says Todd Blachier of Church Mutual Insurance, “but states like Louisiana, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi have gotten much better in terms of shutting down inbound roads and creating one-way egress to facilitate evacuation.”

He says officials are acting much more quickly and communicating more effectively, thanks in large part to improved information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other resources.

One area in which improvements could boost resilience is building codes and standards. A recent Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) study quantified the losses avoided due to buildings being constructed according to modern, hazard-resistant codes and standards. In California and Florida — two of the most catastrophe-prone states — FEMA found adopting and enforcing modern codes over the past 20 years led to a long-term average future savings of $1 billion per year for those two states combined.

Hurricane Laura Update: 8/27/2020

Damage reports from Hurricane Laura are coming in. Lake Charles, La., was especially hard hit, and there are reports of a chemical leak nearby.

Laura made landfall near Cameron, La., as an “extremely dangerous” Category 4 hurricane. The National Hurricane Center (NHC) said in an early-morning bulletin that Laura had weakened to a Category 3 hurricane, with rapid weakening forecast, and the storm has since been downgraded to a Category 1 as it heads northward.

“Lake Charles experienced severe wind damage but seems not to have seen the amount of storm surge that was feared,” said Triple-I non-resident scholar and Colorado State University atmospheric scientist Dr. Philip Klotzbach.  

Despite the downgrade, the hurricane still had sustained winds of more than 100 mph. Heavy rain is predicted to be widespread across the west-central Gulf Coast, with five to 10 inches falling over a broad area, and locally up to 18 inches, leading to flash flooding.

The storm is now tracking inland across western Louisiana with damaging winds and is an inland flood risk as far north and east as Arkansas and the Ohio and Tennessee valleys. 

“The threat of tornadoes today and even tomorrow also exists as the storm recurves into the Tennessee Valley,” Klotzbach said. 

Atypical Wildfire Activity? Of Course — It’s 2020

If you need any further evidence of the anomalous nature of the year 2020, you can take a look at California’s wildfires. Two of the three largest fires in California history rage across the state, alongside about 600 others, burning more than 1.3 million acres — an area about the size of Delaware — and forcing more than 100,000 people to evacuate.

Those of us who aren’t directly affected may have become jaded enough to think, “More fires in the West. That’s normal.”

But as Janet Ruiz, Triple-I’s California-based director of strategic communications, explains, “We’ve had a significant number of large wildfires since 2015, but this year is anything but normal.”

Your first clue might be the alphabet soup of names applied to this year’s blazes: LNU, CZU, SCU. You might remember Northern California’s major wildfires in recent years — the Camp Fire, the Carr Fire, Tubbs, Ferguson — and wonder why this year’s don’t have similarly straightforward names.

According to California fire officials, it’s because the number of fires has required them to be grouped together in “complexes”:

  • The LNU Lightning Complex in the northeast Bay Area, including Sonoma, Napa, Solano, and Lake counties.
  • The CZU Lightning Complex in the western and southern Bay Area, including San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties.
  • The SCU Lightning Complex in the eastern and southeastern Bay Area, including Santa Clara, Alameda and Contra Costa counties, and neighboring San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties.

“We only group fires like that when we have a lightning siege as such,” Brice Bennet, a public information officer for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), told the San Francisco Chronicle.

The last major lightning siege was in 2008.

“Once the fires are grouped into a complex,” the Chronicle explains, “they’re managed so fire managers can assess all the different fires within each one and share resources across the greatest need — life being first, and property second. That’s where the prefixes come in. Those monikers are geographical locators based on Cal Fire administrative unit codes.”

Ruiz explained that many of the fires since 2015 were caused by human activity, rather than nature.

“Authorities have worked hard and invested a lot of money to mitigate those causes,” she said. “Then along comes this unpredictable, unpreventable abundance of lightning strikes.”

Fewer firefighters: Thanks, COVID-19

The daunting number of blazes coincides with a reduced availability of firefighters, courtesy of the coronavirus pandemic.

“In past seasons, a lot of help came from inmates recruited to assist in firefighting,” Ruiz said. “Many of these have been released because of COVID-19 and therefore aren’t available.”

Less warning, preparation paramount

Lightning is a universal metaphor for random ill fortune, and the chaotic causation of California’s 2020 fires has affected how authorities communicate with residents about impending threats.

“Normally you’d get warnings about approaching fires, followed, if necessary, by a mandatory evacuation order,” Ruiz said. But last week, when Ruiz was evacuated, “We didn’t get an advisory – we were just told to go.”

Wisely, she and her husband keep “to go” bags near their front door and were able to leave within 10 minutes of receiving the order.

A year characterized by a global pandemic, historic civil unrest, an “extremely active” hurricane season, a destructive derecho – not to mention the more bizarre entomological offerings of murder hornets, zombie cicadas, and invasive “jumping” earthworms – is no time to forgo caution where wildfire safety is concerned.

Ruiz reminds us that this fire season is still young, and more and worse may be in store.

Further Reading:

Safeguard Your Business From Wildfires: Allianz and Triple-I Team Up on Mitigation

Wildfires and Insurance: Learn How to Prepare Financially

Facts and Stats: Wildfire

Are You Financially Prepared for a Wildfire?

Knowing Insurance Is Part of Wildfire Preparedness

Fighting Wildfires With Innovation