Category Archives: Catastrophes

IBHS Ranks Building Codes as Above-Average Hurricane Season Approaches

Building codes are critical to disaster mitigation, as well as to enabling families, communities, and businesses to bounce back from natural and man-made catastrophes.  The Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS) “Rating the States” report has become an important resource for comparing the quality of these codes and of states’ enforcement of them.

Published every three years, “Rating the States” evaluates the 18 states along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, all vulnerable to catastrophic hurricanes, based on building code adoption, enforcement, and contractor licensing.

The 2021 Atlantic hurricane season is expected to be another “above-average” one.

“Damage reduction that results from the adoption and enforcement of building codes helps to keep people in their homes and businesses following a natural or manmade disaster, reduces the need for public and private disaster aid, and preserves the built environment,” IBHS writes in the most recent edition of the report. It cites research following Hurricane Charley in 2004 that found code improvements adopted in 1996 in Florida resulted in a 60 percent reduction in residential property damage claims and a 42 percent reduction in cost of claims.

Benefits of strong, uniform, well-enforced statewide codes are diverse and include:

  • Giving residents a sense of security about the safety and soundness of their buildings,
  • Preserving economic resources of a community and reducing post-disaster government spending,
  • Protecting first responders during and after fires and other disaster events,
  • Incorporating new best practices and cost efficiencies, and
  • Reducing solid waste in landfills from homes that are damaged or destroyed during disasters.

In the 2021 report, no state achieved a perfect rating based on the IBHS 100-point scale, though several states received high scores, including:

  • Florida (95 points)
  • Virginia (94 points)
  • South Carolina (92 points) and
  • New Jersey (90 points).

Other states that performed well were Connecticut (89 points), Rhode Island (89 points), North Carolina (88 points), Louisiana (82 points), Massachusetts (78 points), and Maryland (78 points).

The 2021 edition also includes information from the nonprofit Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH) to support consumer awareness and response to local building codes in their area.  Inspect2Protect.org offers a free building code look-up tool available to all homeowners.

“With more Americans living in harm’s way, it is even more critical for residents and communities to have the information they need to take action,” said Triple-I CEO Sean Kevelighan. “2021’s Rating the States report is essential reading for anyone who resides in a hurricane-prone state and wants a definitive assessment of its building codes.”

More information from Triple-I

Hurricane Season: More Than Just Wind and Water

Flood: Beyond Risk Transfer

Modern Building Codes Would Prevent Billions in Catastrophe Losses

California Earthquakes: How Modern Building Codes Are Making Safer, More Resilient Communities

Millions Saved in Japan by Good Engineering and Government Building Codes

Triple-I CEO: Insurance Leading on Climate Risk

Triple-I CEO Sean Kevelighan recently briefed regulators on the steps U.S. insurers are taking to reduce climate-related risks as weather-related catastrophes increase in frequency and severity.

Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) issues are in the insurance industry’s DNA, Sean said in a panel discussion hosted by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners’ (NAIC) Climate and Resiliency Task Force.  “While ESG priorities may seem new to many industries, insurers have long been involved in understanding and addressing these and other risk factors as a fundamental part of doing business.” 

Speaking on the first day of the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season, Sean pointed out investment decisions made by leading insurers that he said will likely lead to carbon emission reductions.

“Insured losses caused by natural disasters have grown by nearly 700 percent since the 1980s, and four of the five costliest natural disasters in U.S. history have occurred over the past decade,” he said.

To illustrate the point, he showed an inflation-adjusted chart showing an annual averageof$5 billion in natural disaster-caused insured losses incurred in the 1980s. That figure jumped to an annual average of $35 billion in the 2010s, the same Triple-I analysis found. 

U.S. insurers paid out $67 billion in 2020 due to natural disasters. The insured losses emerged in part as the result of 13 hurricanes, five of the six largest wildfires in California’s history, and a derecho that caused significant damage in Iowa

Given the millions of Americans who live in harm’s way, the Triple-I launched its Resilience Accelerator initiative to help people and communities better manage risk and become more resilient, Sean said. The goal of the Triple-I’s Resilience Accelerator is to demonstrate the power of insurance as a force for resilience by telling the story of how insurance coverage helps governments, businesses and individuals recover faster and more completely after natural disasters.

“The insurance industry’s focus on resilience is starting to pay dividends as more Americans recognize the very real risks their residences face from floods, hurricanes, and other natural disasters,” Sean continued.

A Triple-I Consumer Poll released in September 2020 found 42 percent of homeowners had made improvements to protect their homes from floods and 39 percent had done the same to protect their homes from hurricanes.

Download Sean’s slides

Flood Pictures Worth More Than 1,000 Words

One of the benefits of social media is the fact that it reminds you what was on your mind several years earlier. Today I was reminded of the horrific flooding in Ellicott City, Md., that occurred three years ago this week.

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Water rushes through Main Street in Ellicott City, MD, 2018

This event resonated for me because I had friends living there, and I lived in a similarly situated flood-prone town. The images from Ellicott City recalled for me the damage much closer to home, in Bound Brook, NJ, when Tropical Storm Floyd dropped over 13 inches of rain and the Raritan River crested at above 42 feet, inundating the downtown and sparking fires as electrical systems shorted out.  

My little town of Dunellen had dodged a major bullet, I realized as I watched on TV as firefighters in boats responded to the devastation next door.  Our basement, turned temporarily into an indoor swimming pool, seemed a minor inconvenience next to the losses in Bound Brook and elsewhere.

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Firefighters battle a fire in flood-ravaged Bound Brook, NJ, 1999

A few years later, my region would be visited by similarly shocking images in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy.

Rollercoaster at Seaside, NJ, after Superstorm Sandy, 2012

We’ve written a lot about flood risk, the flood protection gap, and the need for a resilience mindset to prevent damages and loss wherever possible and help families, businesses, and communities bounce back from unavoidable disasters. But sometimes a few images can persuade more eloquently and effectively than all the words in the world.

Learn More From the Triple-I Blog

Flood: Beyond Risk Transfer

Partnering to Improve Flood Resilience

FEMA’s New Approach to Flood Risk Will Make Insurance Program Fairer

Floods, Freezing, Other Extreme Weather Highlight Need for Planning And Insurance

Study Quantifies Future Climate Change Impact on Flood Losses

Study Supports Case for Flood Mitigation as World Warms

Expanded Triple-I Flood Risk Maps Provide Richer Perspective

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

Ahead of Hurricane Sally’s Rains, Many Lack Flood Insurance

Ten years after deadly tornado, Joplin Missouri is disaster-ready

May 22 marks the ten-year anniversary of the Joplin, Missouri, tornado – the deadliest single tornado event in U.S. history. In these videos, Triple-I’s Scott Holeman shows how the people of Joplin have recovered and become more resilient.

The EF-5 tornado destroyed thousands of homes and businesses and was the largest insurance event in Missouri history, with insured losses totaling roughly $9 billion (in 2021 dollars).

Survivors of the 2011 tornado say many lessons were learned after the devastating storm. Local insurance experts say the disaster taught the community about the importance of renters insurance and keeping homeowners policies updated. 

Today, many Joplin residents prepare a “go-kit” whenever there’s a storm threat.

Numerous public facilities, businesses and residences have added enhanced safety modifications. The high school and hospital are prominent examples.

Bracing for Another Brutal Wildfire Season

Wildfires in California and across the West are starting earlier and ending later each year.  The ongoing drought worsened last week, with every part of the state in moderate drought or worse.

After a 2020 fire season that Janet Ruiz, Triple-I’s California-based director of strategic communications, called “anything but normal,” this year’s season may be even worse.

Warmer spring and summer temperatures, reduced snowpack, and earlier spring snowmelt create longer, more intense dry seasons that make forests more susceptible to wildfire. The fire season’s length is estimated to have increased by 75 days across the Sierras and seems to correspond with an increase in the extent of forest fires across the state.

“Hots are getting hotter”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently expanded a drought emergency declaration while seeking more than $6 billion in multiyear water spending.

“The hots are getting a lot hotter in this state, the dries are getting a lot drier,” he said. “We have a conveyance system, a water system, that was designed for a world that no longer exists.”

California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara has called for property insurers across the state to play a larger role in boosting wildfire preparedness among homeowners and businesses by providing more wildfire mitigation incentives. He spotlighted eight insurance companies in the state and the California FAIR Plan, which offer discounts to policyholders that have taken adequate steps to harden homes and mitigate wildfire risk.

This group represents only 13 percent of the state market, and Lara hopes the figure will rise significantly this year.

“Insurance companies support and echo Commissioner Lara’s call for mitigation,” Mark Sektnan, vice president of American Property Casualty Insurance Association (APCIA), said in a statement on behalf of APCIA, the Personal Insurance Federation of California (PIFC), and the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies (NAMIC).  “Insurers are working with scientists and modelers to further the science of understanding how to better mitigate wildfire risk and understanding the value of various mitigation programs and efforts. While we cannot stop wildfires, we are learning how to mitigate the risks and are moving towards understanding and quantifying the value of individual and community mitigation. Insurers encourage homeowners, renters and businesses to get their property and finances ready for wildfires, as we are facing another dry, hot summer.”

Mostly caused by people

As much as 90 percent of wildland fires in the United States are caused by people, according to the U.S. Department of Interior. Some human-caused fires result from campfires left unattended, the burning of debris, downed power lines, negligently discarded cigarettes and intentional acts of arson. The remaining 10 percent are started by lightning or lava.

The Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety provides recommendations for reducing the likelihood of your home catching fire, including noncombustible siding, decking and roofing materials; covered vents; and fences not connected directly to the house. In addition, combustible structures in the yard such as playground equipment should be at least 30 feet away from the house and vegetation 100 feet away.

But given weather, climate, and population trends, more than individual planning and risk transfer through insurance will be required to head off wildfire risk and bounce back from events. Innovation and a resilience mindset on the part of governments, businesses, homeowners, and communities will need to take hold.

Want to learn more about wildfire mitigation and resilience? Register for “Wildfire Ready: How Do You Prepare Your Home and Finances for Wildfires?” on May 20 at 10 a.m. (PT)

Man-made and Natural Hazards Both Demand
a Resilience Mindset

This weekend’s ransomware attack that forced the closure of the largest U.S. fuel pipeline provides another powerful illustration of the need for a resilience mindset that applies to more than just natural catastrophes.

Colonial Pipeline Co. operates a 5,500-mile system that transports fuel from refineries in the Gulf of Mexico to the New York metropolitan area. It said it learned Friday that it was the victim of the attack and “took certain systems offline to contain the threat, which has temporarily halted all pipeline operations.”

Individually, the event demonstrates the threat cybercriminals pose to the aging energy infrastructure that keeps the nation moving. More frighteningly, though, it is yet another example of how vulnerable the complex, interconnected global supply chain is to disruptions of all kinds – a message that isn’t lost on risk managers and insurers.

Last year, a ransomware attack moved from a natural-gas company’s networks into the control systems at a compression facility, halting operations for two days, according to a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) alert

The DHS described the attack on an unnamed pipeline operator that halted operations for two days.  Although staff didn’t lose control of operations, the alert said the company didn’t have a plan in place for responding to a cyberattack.

“This incident is just the latest example of the risk ransomware and other cyber threats can pose to industrial control systems, and of the importance of implementing cybersecurity measures to guard against this risk,” a CISA spokesperson said at the time.

Not just energy companies

It isn’t only energy and industrial companies that need to be paying attention. According to cyber security firm VMware, attacks against the global financial sector increased 238 percent from the beginning of February 2020 to the end of April, with some 80 percent of institutions reporting an increase in attacks.

“Cyber is an existential issue for financial institutions, which is why they invest heavily in cyber security,” says Thomas Kang, Head of Cyber, Tech and Media, North America at Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty (AGCS). “However, with such potentially high rewards, cybercriminals will also invest time and money into attacking them.”

He pointed to two malware campaigns – known as Carbanak and Cobalt – that targeted over 100 financial institutions in more than 40 countries over five years, stealing over $1 billion.

An ACGS report shows technical failures and human error are the most frequent generators of cyber claims, but the financial impact of these is limited:

“Losses resulting from the external manipulation of computers, such as distributed denial of service attacks (DDoS) or phishing and malware/ ransomware campaigns, account for the significant majority of the value of claims analyzed across all industry sectors (not just involving financial services companies).”

According to the report, regulators have turned their attention to cyber resilience and business continuity.

“Following a number of major outages at banks and payment processing companies, regulators have begun drafting business continuity requirements in a bid to bolster resilience.”

Not just cyber

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught the world a lot of lessons, not the least of which is how vulnerable the global supply chain – from toilet paper to semiconductors – is to unexpected disruptions. Demand for chlorine increased during 2020 as more people used their pools while stuck at home under social distancing orders and homeowners also began building pools at a faster rate, adding to the additional demand. Such disruptions can ripple through the economy in different directions.

Business interruption claims and litigation have been a significant feature of the pandemic for property and casualty insurers.

When the container ship Ever Given got wedged in the Suez canal – one of the most important arteries in global trade – freight traffic was completely blocked for six days. Even as movement resumed, terminals experienced congestion and the severe drop in vessel arrival and container discharge in major terminals aggravated existing shortages of empty containers available for exports. The ship’s owners and the Egyptian government remain locked in negotiations over compensation for the disruption, and the ship is still impounded.

Spurred in part by this event, the Japanese shipping community is considering alternative freight routes to Europe, both reliant on Russia: the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Northern Sea Route. Neither option is devoid of risks.

In an increasingly interconnected world, there is no bright line distinguishing man-made from natural disasters. After all, the Ever Given grounding was caused, at least in part, by a sandstorm. April’s power and water disruptions that left dozens of Texans dead and could end up being the costliest disaster in state history were initiated by a severe winter storm.

A resilience mindset focused on pre-emptive mitigation and rapid recovery is called for in both cases. There is no “either/or.”

Flood: Beyond Risk Transfer

Half a billion people worldwide are affected by floods annually, and about 90 percent of all U.S. natural disasters involve flooding. The human and economic tolls are massive, and until recently insuring these risks and helping communities recover fell almost entirely on government programs. 

Improved data, analysis, and modeling have helped drive private-sector interest in flood-risk transfer and mitigation. But despite growing private involvement, many experts consider the current system unsustainable. A resilience mindset is required, and that demands more than insurance products.

A new Triple-I paper analyzes the current state of flood risk and resilience and discusses how governments, corporations, academia, and others are rising to the challenges and seizing the opportunities.

“New products alone will not close the protection gap,” says Triple-I CEO Sean Kevelighan. “Risk transfer is just one tool in the resilience toolkit. Our understanding of loss trends and expertise in assessing and quantifying risk must be joined at the hip to technology, public policy and finance, and science. We need to partner with communities and businesses at every level to promote a broad resilience mindset focused on pre-emptive mitigation and rapid recovery.”

The Triple-I paper describes how this is happening. Tapping its own resources and the expertise of its insurance and risk-management network, Triple-I is pleased to bring you this analysis of the current state of flood risk and resilience.

Climate Risk Is Not a New Priority for Insurers

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s pledge to tackle climate change and warning about the economic consequences of failure to act underscore the fact that climate is no longer “merely” an ecological and humanitarian issue – real money is involved.

As long as climate was perceived as a pet project of academics and celebrity activists, driving behavioral change – particularly on the part of industries with billions invested in carbon-intensive technologies and processes – was going to be an uphill effort. But the Titanic has begun to turn, and no industry is better positioned than insurance to help right its course. Insurers are no strangers to climate-related risk – they’ve had a financial stake in it for decades.

Let’s look at the facts:

Global insured weather-related property losses have outpaced inflation by about 7 percent since 1950. Of the $1.7 trillion of global insured property loss reported since 1990, a third is from tropical cyclones, according to Aon data. Nine of the 10 costliest hurricanes in U.S. history have occurred since 2004, and 2017, 2018, and 2019 represent the largest back-to-back-to-back insured property loss years in U.S. history.

Determining how much such losses are driven by climate versus other factors is complicated, and that’s part of the point.

“I know some have argued that this is a reason for us to move slowly,” Yellen said. “The thinking goes that because we know so little about climate risk, let’s be tentative in our actions—or even do nothing at all.  This is completely wrong in my view.  This is a major problem and it needs to be tackled now.”

Understanding the complexities of weather, climate, demographics, and other factors that contribute to loss trends requires data, analytical tools, and sophisticated modeling capabilities. Insurers invest heavily in these and other resources to be able to assess and price risk accurately. As a result, they’re uniquely well positioned to inform the conversation, drive action, and present solutions. 

And they’re leading by example.

Chubb Chairman and CEO Evan G. Greenberg is among the industry leaders who has been on the forefront of communicating about climate risk. When Chubb announced that it will not make new debt or equity investments in companies that generate more than 30 percent of revenues from coal mining or coal energy production, Greenberg said, “Making the transition to a low-carbon economy involves planning and action by policymakers, investors, businesses and citizens alike. The policy we are implementing today reflects Chubb’s commitment to do our part as a steward of the Earth.”

Swiss Re last month announced a similarly ambitious carbon reduction target of 35 percent by 2025 for its investment portfolio. Zurich Insurance Group last year announced the launch of its Climate Change Resilience Services to help businesses better prepare for current and future risks associated with climate. Aon annually publishes its Weather, Climate and Catastrophe Insight reports.

These are just a few examples of how the insurance industry already is recognizing its stake in addressing climate change and providing resources to help others attack the problem.  

FEMA’s New Approach
to Flood Risk Will Make Insurance Program Fairer

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) last week unveiled details of Risk Rating 2.0 – its plan to modernize the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) to make it fairer and more sustainable.

The changes measuring flood danger differently – gauging properties’ specific risks and replacement costs, rather than simply whether they sit in a FEMA-designated “flood zone.”  FEMA officials said this would end a system in which low-value homes effectively subsidize insurance for high-value homes.

Despite concerns that Risk Rating 2.0 would lead to huge premium increases, NFIP Senior Executive David Maurstad said 23 percent of policyholders will see “immediate decreases,” 66 percent will see an “average of zero to $10 a month” in additional premiums, and 11% will pay higher bills, some more than $20 a month.

NFIP owes the U.S. Treasury $20.5 billion after a series of hurricanes that resulted in claims costs greater than the premiums FEMA received.

“Our current system is just fundamentally not working for us anymore,” Maurstad said, adding that the new approach would result in a “more equitable, accurate and individualized NFIP.”

Lawmakers in coastal states like Florida worried about the sudden impact of higher rates – more accurately reflecting the greater flood risk in those areas – on their constituents.  FEMA has ameliorated those concerns by making new rates apply only to new policies when the program takes effect in October 2021. Homeowners and businesses with existing flood policies won’t see a rate change until April 2022.

FEMA said high-value homes in high-risk areas would experience seeing the largest increases. FEMA expects their rate increases would take effect over a 10-15 year “glide path” as they continue to be protected by an 18 percent annual cap on premium increases that is written into law.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) quickly weighed in on the plan.

“The system we’ve used to calculate flood risk, and in turn insurance policy premiums, no longer holds water,” said Shana Udvardy, a UCS climate resilience analyst. “Outdated maps have left homeowners ill-prepared for possible disasters. Risk Rating 2.0 could go a long way in helping homeowners better understand their risk, ensuring they can make informed decisions to protect themselves and their property.”

“It is great to see that FEMA is moving forward with Risk Rating 2.0, which is so badly needed,” said Matthew Eby, executive director of the First Street Foundation, a climate and technology non-profit that has done its own extensive flood-mapping. A recent First Street analysis found the United States to be woefully underprepared for damaging floods.

It identified “around 1.7 times the number of properties as having substantial risk,” compared with FEMA’s flood zone 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.”

Some Experts Suggest Retiring the Name “Tornado Alley”

(Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images).

What’s in a name? If you live in “Tornado Alley,” there might be a lot – or less than you might imagine.

The designation refers to a stretch of geography running from Texas and Oklahoma through Nebraska and Kansas (think Dorothy and Toto, their house wrenched from the parched, flat earth and spinning toward Oz). It first came into use almost 70 years ago, when two atmospheric scientists used it as the title for a research project on tornadoes.

But, as the Washington Post recently reported, some experts believe the name is misleading and should be retired.

“To be honest, I hate the term,” said Stephen Strader, an atmospheric scientist at Villanova University specializing in severe weather risk mitigation. “What people need to understand is that if you live east of the continental divide, tornadoes can affect you.”

Research has shown tornadoes are just as common in the Deep South as they are on the Plains, and there is no real drop in tornadoes as one exits Tornado Alley to the east.

“Tornadoes on the Plains are often elegant and foreboding,” the Post says, “some reliably appearing as high-contrast funnels that pose over vacant farmland for hordes of storm chasers and photographers. The Plains are like a giant meteorological classroom, an open laboratory; its students flock to it every year.”

Which explains why tornadoes we see on TV have that “classic” funnel look – and what we are shown most often comes to be thought of as most “typical.”

In the Deep South, most tornadoes are, as the Post puts it, “rain-wrapped and shrouded in low clouds, impossible to see.” More than a third of all tornadoes in Alabama and Mississippi occur at night, making them twice as likely to be deadly.

But, because they don’t match the popular perception of what a tornado is like and are hard to capture, they seldom appear on TV.

Why does it matter?

Because how we name things influences how we think about them, and how we think about them influences policymaking and individual behavior.

As we reported last year, tornado reports are on the rise – but is that because of changes in weather and climate? Or improved reporting related to technology and the growing popularity of “storm chasing”? Damage from tornadoes and other types of natural disasters is becoming more costly – is that because storms are becoming more frequent and severe? Or because more people are moving into disaster-prone areas?

If you’re not located in Tornado Alley, does it make sense to invest in mitigating tornado-related risks? Probably as much as it does to have flood insurance, even if you’re not in a FEMA-designated flood zone, or anticipate and prepare for winter storms in Texas.

For more information:

Severe Convective Storms: Evolving risks call for innovation to reduce costs, drive resilience