It is a warm, humid spring day in Dallas/Fort Worth when strong thunderstorms begin to develop alongside a high-altitude weather system that includes strong winds and convective energy coming from the Rocky Mountains.
By mid-afternoon, the atmosphere reaches a tipping point. A massive supercell thunderstorm along the weather front produces large, damaging hail and what is later designated as an EF5 tornado, with winds in excess of 200 mph.
The most recent tornado of this size as designated by the National Weather Service was on May 20, 2013, when an EF5 struck Moore, Okla., killing 24 people, flattening neighborhoods and schools, and injuring more than 350 people.
This Texas tornado is much, much worse.
Video: An EF5 tornado in May 2013 flattened much of Moore, Okla.
Moving in the usual southwest to northeast direction, it creates a damage path about 1 mile wide and nearly 200 miles long, and directly strikes the Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant in Glen Rose, Texas, about 40 miles west of Fort Worth and 60 miles west of Dallas.
The power plant’s reactor was built to withstand winds up to 300 mph, but it can’t withstand what happens after the tornado throws around multiple gas-filled tanker trucks, which explode and kill numerous workers.
Debris fills the air as the powerful winds destroy much of the plant’s emergency equipment, making it impossible to maintain proper conditions and temperature within the reactor. The remaining power plant workers feverishly try to manually shut down the nuclear reactor before it melts down. They can’t.
When the reactor’s heat exceeds the ability of the plant’s processes to cool it down, radioactive gases begin to snake their way into the funnel stacks. The radioactive contamination is carried by the ferocious winds directly toward Dallas/Fort Worth.
Communication fails as area power lines go down, so it is difficult to warn the 7 million residents of the Metroplex, as Dallas/Fort Worth is known. Residents know the tornado has been sighted and try to prepare, but they don’t know that deadly airborne toxins are being carried toward them.
About 10,000 homes and 700 commercial structures in the direct path of the tornado are completely destroyed and another 35,000 suffer damage, according to a model built by RMS. Roofs are ripped off apartment houses and multi-family dwellings. Vehicles are tossed around like toys, and with the storm striking at rush hour, workers on the roads are exposed to flying debris and high winds.
Even with residents sheltering in basements and safe rooms, fatalities reach into the 500-700 range — putting this event in line to be the deadliest tornado in U.S. history, after the Tri-State tornado of 1925, which killed 695 people in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.
But it is the unseen radioactive contamination that ultimately makes the deadliest mark on the area.
Immediate fatalities from radiation poisoning number about two dozen, but as the contaminated rainfall seeps into the ground soil and water supply, the long-term health of the residents — and their descendants — is jeopardized. So, too, are the cattle and other agricultural products of Texas, which leads the nation in the number of ranches and farms it holds.
Chernobyl and Fukushima are the only events of a similar nature, even though the United States has seen its own recent near misses.
The radioactivity causes large swaths of area to be cordoned off, making it difficult to repair transmission and power lines as well as homes and businesses.
“The hard truth is that many businesses will close and many people will move from the area,” said Todd Macumber, president of international risk services, Hub International.
Chernobyl and Fukushima are the only events of a similar nature, even though the United States has seen its own recent near misses.
In 2011, a tornado knocked out power to the Browns Ferry Nuclear Power Plant near Huntsville, Ala., requiring the shut down of its three reactors. The plant fired up backup diesel generators until power was restored. The storm also disabled the plant’s sirens, which are needed to warn nearby residents in a crisis.
That same year, a tornado barely missed damaging 2.5 million pounds of radioactive waste at the Surrey Power Station in southeastern Virginia, although it touched down in the plant’s electrical switchyard and disabled power to the cooling pumps. The operators needed to activate backup diesel generators to run the two reactors until power was restored.
Twenty-eight years after the radioactive disaster at Chernobyl in 1986, some parts of the Ukraine remain a toxic wasteland. And in Japan, an initial evacuation area of about 2 miles surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was soon widened to about 12.5 miles.
Now, three years after three of Fukushima’s six reactors melted down, the area is still unlivable and 40 miles away, diagnoses in children of thyroid cancer, which is caused by radiation poisoning, are skyrocketing, according to some reports.
Nearly 16,000 people died in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan, causing the meltdown. About 160,000 people were evacuated, 130,000 buildings were destroyed and $210 billion in damage was sustained.
The Texas scenario has a lot of variables, said Matthew Nielsen, director of Americas product management at RMS, who created the model for our Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant black swan scenario.
The likelihood of a tornado, with thunderstorms and hail, causing massive structural damage is about 1 in 200 years, he said. Such an event would result in at least $20 billion in insured losses and uninsured losses of about the same amount.
But a tornado following the exact path as this scenario — striking the power plant and heading into the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex — has a much, much smaller chance — about 1 in 10,000 years.
“Given the fact that tornadoes are very rare, it isn’t something that I think people should be screaming and running around frantically about,” Nielsen said. “But it’s certainly something that could happen.”
As for losses due to the radiation? “There’s not a lot of historical data points that we can confidently say that that portion would be x or y billion,” he said.
Any rebuilding will be delayed by the threat posed by radioactive contamination, which may spread over a large area via the thunderstorms and storm water runoff.
From an insurance perspective, all personal and commercial lines of insurance have a nuclear energy hazard exclusion. American Nuclear Insurers (ANI) provides third-party liability insurance for all power reactors in the United States.
“We are responsible for the insurance coverage protecting the operators from claims alleging bodily injury or property damage offsite from [radioactive] materials,” said Michael Cass, vice president and general counsel at ANI, a joint underwriting association with 20 insurance company members.
The ANI was created under the Price-Anderson Act of 1957 and provides a primary policy limit of $375 million for claims due to offsite consequences from the release of radioactive materials from the 100 operating nuclear power plants in the United States. It also covers some plants that are shut down or in the process of being decommissioned, he said.
The ANI also covers costs related to emergency response and evacuation, including food, clothing and shelter, he said.
The joint underwriting association also administers an additional excess layer of about $13.2 billion, the costs of which would be borne by the power plant operators, and would be apportioned equally among them.
For any claims above $13.6 billion (which includes both the primary and excess layers), the Price-Anderson Act requires the U.S. Congress to “take steps to come up with a scheme to provide full compensation to the public and to continue claims payments,” Cass said.
“They could assess or tax the energy industry in some fashion or form. It doesn’t say that specifically, but that is what is alluded to.”
None of the insurance companies that are ANI members would be adversely affected if such a black swan event were to occur, he said.
“There would be a loss reserve recorded on their balance sheets, per participation in our pool, but we do have funds set aside for these catastrophic events where we wouldn’t be requiring any additional funds,” Cass said.
Damage to the power plant itself would be covered by Nuclear Electric Insurance Ltd., which insures electric utilities and energy companies in the United States. Current limits are $1.5 billion per site on the primary program, and up to $1.5 billion per site in its excess program.
Allan Koenig, vice president, corporate communications at Energy Future Holdings, which operates Comanche Peak, said the plant is robustly protected. It has two independent systems that can provide off-site power as well as backup diesel generators, to allow the units to be safety shut down in the event of natural catastrophes.
He also noted the plant has safety shields for fuel storage casks, a 45-inch-thick steel-reinforced concrete containment building wall, and fire protection redundancies.
As for the affected businesses and homeowners, they may be left in a swirling vortex of coverage confusion. The situation would have the flavor of what happened after Superstorm Sandy, when coverage often depended on whether damage was caused by flooding or wind surge.
The question for Texas insureds would be whether the damage was caused by the tornado or by the radioactivity.
“It’s an incredibly complex question and a complex issue that is really only solvable and resolvable if and when the incident occurs,” said John Butler, vice president of the environmental practice at Hub International.
“What it boils down to is the chicken and the egg scenario,” he said. “What came first? Either event has the ability on its own to create a total loss.”
Resilience and redundancy should be the key takeaways from this, said Peter Boynton, founding co-director of the Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security at Northeastern University in suburban Boston.
“If we can retain a percentage of the critical function of whatever system we are talking about, the difference between 0 percent and 30 percent when the bad thing happens is huge.” — Peter Boynton, founding co-director of the Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security, Northeastern University
Instead of viewing catastrophic events from an emergency management perspective, where the discussion revolves around what was — or was not — managed well, it’s better to look at the way design can lead to “continuity of function,” he said.
When Boynton was head of emergency management for the state of Connecticut, he managed the statewide response in 2011 to Hurricane Irene, which knocked out 70 percent of the state’s electric grid, leaving residents unable to access many gas stations, ATMs and grocery stores.
If the state had designed a “resiliency approach” prior to the event, it could have built in a pre-determined amount of redundancy into the system so that, say, an additional 20 percent or 30 percent of the grid remained viable.
“If we can retain a percentage of the critical function of whatever system we are talking about, the difference between 0 percent and 30 percent when the bad thing happens is huge,” Boynton said.
In the Texas scenario, if the crisis planning included a redundancy for warning nearby residents even when the power and communication lines failed — such as by using satellites to create a minimal level of continuity — the amount of death and destruction could have been lessened.
“Otherwise, we really are setting ourselves up for an impossible discussion,” he said. “You can’t just pick up these pieces at the moment of crisis. You have to understand how system design can play a role.”
Analyzing such a black swan scenario is a useful exercise, said Justin VanOpdorp, manager, quantitative analysis, at Lockton.
“Can this actually happen? Yes. Will it? Maybe not,” he said. “I think what it does is, it helps to think through it just to be prepared for those situations when they do arise.”
Additional 2014 black swan stories:
When the 8.5 magnitude earthquake hits, sea water will devastate much of Los Angeles and San Francisco, and a million destroyed homes will create a failed mortgage and public sector revenue tsunami.
A double dose of ice storms batter the Eastern seaboard, plunging 50 million people and three million businesses into a polar vortex of darkness and desperation.
Legal Spotlight: August 2014
Insurer Must Pay $2 Million Claim
On a normal day, Armored Money Services (AMS) would pick up about $2 million from various New York agent locations for the Omnex Group Inc., a provider of money transfer services.
That money would then be held in a secure vault and deposited within a few days into a bank account in Omnex’s name.
But on Feb. 8, 2010, Robert Egan, president of AMS, was arrested by the FBI and charged with bank fraud. The contents of the vault — about $19 million — were seized by the federal government and later put in the care of a trustee.
It ultimately was discovered that the company owed more than $68 million to its customers on top of the $2 million owed to Omnex. Egan and the COO of the company, Bernard McGarry — both of whom eventually pleaded guilty and were imprisoned — admitted to “playing the float, i.e., using the continual influx of cash to cover the operating expenses of AMS and the affiliated company, repay prior obligations to other customers, and make officer loans,” according to a New York appeals court.
In May, the appeals court upheld a lower court decision that ruled U.S. Fire Insurance Co. should pay Omnex Group the $2 million it lost that February day, minus a $100,000 deductible as set forth in the company’s commercial crime policy.
A lower court judge, Ira Gammerman of the New York Supreme Court, had ruled that the policy covered loss of money in the custody of a “messenger” resulting from theft, disappearance or destruction.
“In its opposing papers,” the judge said during a hearing in December 2012, “the insurance company spends a great deal of time in opposition arguing why this is not a theft, but I don’t care whether it’s a theft or not. It’s a disappearance and disappearance is one of the covered events.”
He also ruled that a section in the policy that excluded losses resulting from seizure or destruction of property by governmental action did not apply, saying the seizure by the government “was not the contributing cause of the plaintiff’s loss, rather it was the fraud committed [by AMS] … .”
Summary: U.S. Fire Insurance Co. must pay a wire transfer company $2 million, which disappeared along with $68 million owed by an armored car company.
Takeaway: Although the term “disappearance,” was not defined in the policy, the court ruled that its “plain ordinary meaning” should apply.
Policy Voided Due to Misrepresentation
Namco Financial Exchange Corp. sought a commercial crime policy for
primary and excess coverage from Liberty Mutual, Zurich American Insurance Co., Axis Insurance Co., and Twin City Fire Insurance Co., for the period of Aug. 15, 2007 to Aug. 15, 2008.
In response to a question on the insurance application, Namco said it did not keep proceeds from IRS Section 1031 transactions — which have to do with tax-deferred property gains — separate from its operating funds. Because of that response, the insurers denied issuance of policies.
Lockton, Namco’s broker, relayed the rejections to the company and informed Namco that “as a condition of coverage, proceeds from 1031 transactions are to be held in bank accounts segregated from those of your operating funds … .” The broker instructed Namco to “confirm that this is done,” before returning an updated insurance application.
Namco followed those instructions as to the application, but the company’s procedures never changed, according to the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, which dismissed a lawsuit against the insurers.
The lawsuit was filed by Heidi Kurtz, who was appointed trustee of the company after it went into Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2009. Kurtz submitted insurance claims contending that Namco had misappropriated in excess of $35 million. When the claims were denied, she filed suit.
The federal court rejected her arguments that the insurance policy (not the application) did not require the funds be segregated; that the insurers needed to prove the misrepresentation on the application was intentional; that the insurers should have investigated the company after it changed its answer to that one question; and that the insurers did not promptly respond to the claim request.
“In this case,” wrote Judge Dolly M. Gee, “there is uncontroverted testimony from each insurer that it would not have issued the policy if [Namco] had answered the question differently.” She granted the insurers a summary judgment in the lawsuit in April.
Summary: Four insurance companies need not pay claims in excess of $35 million to the trustee of a bankrupt company.
Takeaway: Even if a company’s procedures are arguably in compliance with an insurance policy’s requirements, a material misrepresentation in applying for that policy will void coverage.
Contractor Ordered to Repay Insurer
Thomas VanDuinen, who operated Northern Building Co., was selected in 2008 to perform work at Midway International Airport in Chicago under the supervision of Parsons Infrastructure & Technology Group Inc., which served as project manager.
Hanover Insurance Co. issued a surety bond on Northern’s behalf.
Hanover became involved in the project in 2009 when two subcontractors complained that Northern failed to pay them a total of $205,950, halting the project.
Hanover demanded collateral and indemnification from Northern under its agreement, a demand which was refused by the general contractor.
In March 2011, Hanover filed suit against Northern and VanDuinen to force compliance. The insurer sought $127,086 of contract funds, which it was eventually paid although it had been held for a time by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) when the work was stopped.
Hanover also sought payment for attorneys’ fees and costs incurred in resolving the performance and payment claims against the bond. Those fees now total $76,000.
Hanover eventually stepped into Northern’s role as general contractor and arranged for completion of the project.
In September 2012, Hanover paid $127,452 to a trustee for one of the subcontractors, which had filed for bankruptcy. That amount settled both subcontractor claims. Earlier, Hanover agreed to resolve Parson’s bond claim for performance, and $127,086, which had been withheld from Northern by the FAA, was paid to Hanover.
Northern disputed Hanover’s arguments in the litigation, but a district court in Illinois issued a summary judgment in favor of the insurer. A three-judge panel on the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision in May.
“Northern has tried to make this into a multi-issue, complex proceeding. But it is actually very simple,” the federal appeals court judges wrote, noting that the agreement was “clear and unambiguous in all relevant aspects. Northern clearly breached it; Hanover did not.”
The court also offered some “closing advice” to Northern to “carefully consider” how long it wanted to continue to “drag his case out. Hanover’s attorney expenses are only going to increase.”
Summary: The court ruled the general contractor must pay the insurer $200,000, which includes $76,000 in attorneys’ fees.
Takeaway: An actual liability for a breach of the bond is not necessary for a surety bond agreement to be triggered. The insurer needs only a claim against the bond to trigger its rights and responsibilities.
Brokers Lose ‘Franchise’ Fight
A judicial panel for the Superior Court of New Jersey upheld a lower court decision that denied three insurance agents the right to challenge Allstate for individually terminating their exclusive agency agreements.
The three former independent agents, Mario DeLuca, Richard Sorge and Auburn Insurance Agency LLC, had argued that Allstate’s action violated the New Jersey Franchise Practices Act.
The court disagreed, finding that the carrier/broker relationship was regulated by the New Jersey Department of Banking & Insurance — and that applying the franchise act to the relationship “would interfere with the regulatory framework set out in New Jersey’s insurance code,” according to the May 13 judicial decision.
Allstate terminated the agents in early 2011, after they failed to meet expectations in some areas related to “profitability, growth, retention, customer satisfaction and customer service” beginning in 2007, according to the decision.
In 2008 through 2010, the agents were among the “worst performing” agencies for the insurer, it said.
The carrier advised the plaintiffs beginning in 2007 that their performance “may put the agency relationship in jeopardy,” according to court documents. “Allstate’s warnings were patent, timely, and unmistakable,” the Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division judicial panel ruled.
One of the conflicts between the insurance and franchise laws related to termination of contracts, according to the opinion.
A franchisor is prohibited from terminating a franchise “unless he or she has violated the terms of a given franchise agreement,” whereas an insurance agent can be terminated immediately “for, among other reasons, ‘insolvency, abandonment, gross and willful misconduct, or failure to pay’ premiums.”
The court also found that the agents did not constitute franchises because there was no “community of interest” — which requires “tangible capital investments” such as a building or special equipment required for the franchise — or a “place of business,” — defined by the franchise law as a fixed location at which the franchisee displays and sells the franchisor’s goods and services.
New Jersey law restricts the sale of insurance only to insurers authorized to do business in that state, the court ruled. Thus, the brokers did not meet the “place of business” requirement.