Sub-Zero Sucker Punch
During the cold weeks that follow the winter holidays, a low-pressure warm front moves quickly into the New England region, along with a high-pressure Arctic cold front. The two masses collide, causing heavy rains that turn to ice by the time they reach the ground.
Layers of ice blanket an area from Maine to Maryland and as far west as Ohio, making it look like a world made of pure crystal.
Northeasterners shrug and hunker down for a few days of wild weather. A thinner layer of ice reaches west to St. Louis and south to Charlotte. Southeasterners grumble about the polar vortex interfering with their routine.
By the second day, trees fall and rooftops groan under the weight of nearly 3 inches of ice. Dozens of transmission towers buckle and collapse. Local power lines fall, pulling utility poles down across roadways.
Utility companies shift into crisis mode to assess the damage, which has plunged some homes and businesses into darkness. Utility crews from Georgia and Tennessee are dispatched to help get repair work underway, which is slowed by treacherous road conditions.
The worst, though, is yet to come.
Three days after the first storm hits, a second storm arrives, about 500 miles south. It wallops the Southeast and moves on up the Eastern seaboard, dropping another 2-plus inches of ice over two days. Heavy ice puts a death grip on everything from Memphis to Atlanta and on up through Washington, D.C.
The aging utility infrastructure can’t withstand the ice and winds. The fact that at least half of the Southeast’s utility workers had been deployed north makes matters worse — far worse. Four million customers in Georgia and Alabama alone are without power.
Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta is virtually paralyzed, stranding travelers and causing massive delays across the country. Gas stations shut down because pumps are inoperable.
Retailers with backup generators press on as long as they can, but shelves empty quickly of food and other essential goods. Some stores operate on a cash-only basis because payment systems are down.
On the East Coast, more than 50 million people and 3 million businesses are without power. More than 200 transmission towers are badly damaged. Water supply across the entire East Coast is at risk, as treatment plants and pumping stations begin to lose backup power. Cell network circuits become congested, causing delays and weak signals. Some networks fail altogether.
Despite icy roads, millions leave their homes, seeking warmth and shelter. Some die from carbon monoxide poisoning or from blazes caused by open fires in their homes, attempting to keep warm. Many fires burn unchecked, resulting in widespread property damage.
States of emergency are declared for affected major cities. The National Guard is brought in to help clear roads, escort people to emergency shelters, and help maintain civil order among the increasingly frightened and desperate public.
Trees continue to fall for weeks, making power recovery achingly slow. It takes three to four weeks to get to 90 percent recovery for urban centers. Some outlying areas go without power for as long as three months.
Businesses struggle to reopen due to damage and lack of workers, as many have not returned to the area from wherever they sought shelter, or can’t get through to certain areas due to safety hazards.
Hundreds die from hypothermia, starvation, fires, auto accidents and small, localized riots. Tens of thousands more suffer injuries or become seriously ill. The very young, elderly and the poor are hardest hit.
National Geographic’s harrowing docudrama American Blackout depicts the catastrophic repercussions of a 10-day blackout affecting the entire country.
No Escaping Loss
This scenario was created using the Blackout Risk Model, developed through a partnership of Hartford Steam Boiler and Verisk Climate, led by Robin Luo, vice president at HSB; Clifton Lancaster, senior risk analyst at HSB; and Kyle Beatty, president of Verisk Climate.
HSB and Verisk estimate that the frequency of each individual ice storm would be one in 150 years to 200 years. The two storms combined represent a frequency of one in 1,000 years or more.
This scenario loosely resembles a juxtaposition of two historic North American blackout events.
In January 1998, ice pummeled Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick for six straight days, destroying 130 transmission towers and leaving more than 4 million people without power — some for up to a month.
The insured losses from that storm totaled $1.6 billion, according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada. The total economic costs were estimated between $5 billion and $7 billion.
The second event occurred in August 2013, when a simple circuit overload led to cascading blackouts throughout North America, leaving 50 million people in the United States and Canada without power for up to six days. The estimated total economic cost of the outage was between $6 billion and $8 billion.
Combining the duration, ice load and frigid temperatures of the 1998 event with the coverage footprint of the 2013 event would result in a catastrophe exponentially more devastating than any blackout in North American history.
Some experts downplay the amount of property damage typical for an ice storm, but others say the level of property damage wouldn’t be far behind Hurricane Katrina or Superstorm Sandy.
Because of the duration of the power outage and the extreme volume of ice involved, homes and businesses left abandoned would likely succumb to frozen and bursting pipes. Collapsing roofs would lead to additional damage.
Overtaxed emergency responders likely wouldn’t be able to prevent damage caused by the inevitable looting and civil unrest. Fires started by those desperate for warmth could easily burn out of control, consuming neighboring properties in the process, especially in urban centers.
Contaminated water supplies would cause lasting problems that would take months to remedy. Lack of running water would create sanitation hazards.
Industries needing refrigeration, such as restaurants, supermarkets and pharmaceutical companies would suffer heavy losses. Manufacturing would also suffer due to a dependence on power and the difficulty and expense of temporarily relocating equipment.
Of course, that only scratches the surface of business income losses for companies up and down the East Coast, as well as key suppliers and customers across the country.
“Whether you’re impacted directly from the weather or indirectly, I don’t know how anyone escapes some sort of tragedy or economic loss from this,” said Wes Dupont, executive vice president and general counsel of Allied World Assurance Co. Holdings.
Even with power mostly restored in three to four weeks, there would be several more months of clean-up before normal operations resume. Some companies would have difficulty luring back clients that had switched suppliers in the interim.
Small businesses would no doubt be hard hit.
“Small to midsize companies, those that are not able to invest [in a standby power system] … they’re going to struggle,” said Mark Madar, director of risk management and regulatory compliance at CBIZ Risk & Advisory Services. “The companies that do not have a multi-location presence, especially your mom-and-pop types of businesses, they’re the ones who are going to take the hit here.”
But Lou Gritzo, FM Global’s vice president and research manager, said it would be a mistake to downplay the vulnerability of larger companies in this scenario.
“It’s the weakest link scenario,” said Gritzo. “The bigger effects are going to be these cascading failures where one or two pieces of the operation can’t recover and then the entire company experiences the consequences.
“That in turn affects other companies all over the country and all over the world. I think that’s where the biggest impact is going to be,” he said.
Mind the Gaps
For many companies, having a solid business interruption plan will make the difference in whether they make it through such a crisis. More than two in five (43 percent) businesses that experience a disaster and have no emergency plan don’t reopen, according to The Hartford. Of those that do reopen, only 29 percent are still operating two years later.
Even the most sophisticated disaster plan, however, will not shield companies from some degree of loss in an event of this magnitude. Unfortunately for some, the claims process is unlikely to be straightforward.
“The bigger effects are going to be these cascading failures where one or two pieces of the operation can’t recover and then the entire company experiences the consequences. That in turn affects other companies all over the country and all over the world.” —Lou Gritzo, vice president and research manager, FM Global
Blackouts can be a monkey wrench in the works. Companies may assume they’re covered for business losses in the event of a power outage because they have business interruption (BI) coverage — or time element coverage — on their property policies.
But in most cases, BI must be tied to physical damage to an insured’s assets. Several commercial property policies specifically exclude coverage resulting from a utility service interruption that originates away from the insured’s premises.
Standard BI coverage won’t be triggered for businesses that don’t suffer direct physical damage but were forced to close or relocate because of lack of employees or power, or orders from civil authorities to stay away due to safety hazards.
Some larger, sophisticated insurance buyers will have policies that include the necessary extensions needed to trigger the cover, but smaller firms may be left unprotected.
“I think [utility service interruption coverage] is spotty when it comes to small commercial businesses, who would need to ask for those extensions, as well as clients who are on standard boilerplate preprinted forms as opposed to a manuscripted form,” said Duncan Ellis, U.S. property practice leader for Marsh.
Another wording nuance to be aware of, he said, is that some language may provide for damage caused by a power outage, as in the case of a critical manufacturing load destroyed by loss of power in the middle of the process. But the BI side of the policy still may not have an extension for loss of income incurred after the outage.
Even for companies with the right coverage extensions, time durations vary. Some policies may not cover losses related to a service interruption that goes beyond a week or two. In general, many companies could find that their BI losses far exceed limits.
Insurers would see a high volume of contingent business interruption claims from those whose key customers or suppliers were compromised by the event. But the wording of CBI policies is similar to BI policies, and many insureds will find their coverage declaimed.
Companies with a regional base also may face push back from carriers on business income claims, said Mike LoGiudice, managing director of insurance and litigation support for CBIZ Valuation Group. “I might say, ‘I should have done [this amount of business] but for the property loss.’ ”
But the carriers may argue that regardless of damage, your customers would still be out of business themselves, so you wouldn’t have had any income. “They would take into effect the negative impact on your customers,” he said. “It would be a battle.”
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.
When a nuclear reactor melts down due to a powerful tornado, deadly contamination rains down on a metropolitan area.
Building Resiliency in the Face of Climate Change
Failing to prepare for extreme weather events cost the United States $1.15 trillion in economic losses from 1980 to 2010, according to the U.S Global Change Research Program (USGCRP). The more telling number comes from a study by Munich Re, which put insured losses for North America during the same period at $510 billion. No doubt government was forced to take on the lion’s share of the rest, but U.S. business also paid out of pocket for a fair amount of the remaining $640 billion in losses.
Here’s another sobering figure. A Business Continuity Institute study indicates that 40 percent of businesses affected by extreme weather for extended periods of time never recover or reopen. It’s likely that for much of the 60 percent that stay open, full recovery is a long and painful process.
The forces behind these events are gaining steam and they are indiscriminate. From December 2013 through February 2014, drought-stricken California recorded its warmest winter on record. Across the rest of the country, including the South, winter storms were merciless, dealing at least a $15 billion blow to U.S. businesses.
Let the politicians bicker all they want about who or what is to blame for climate change. USGCRP projects another $1.2 trillion in losses through 2050. So for those with boots on the ground and a business to run, it doesn’t matter who’s to blame. Climate change is not a future risk, it’s a right-now risk, and the only question that matters is, “Now what?”
Some of the answers to that may surprise risk managers and other business leaders.
The Chocolate Elephant
Here’s what’s on the table. According to the most recent report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, ice caps are melting, sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, water supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, and coral reefs are dying. Coastal communities are under double threat from sea-level rise and from increased acidity as the waters absorb the carbon dioxide given off by cars and power plants. Organic matter frozen in Arctic soils since before civilization began is melting, decaying into yet more greenhouse gases.
Video: A description of the IPCC findings.
Slowing these trends may be possible, but reversing them is not. Therefore, the altered climate — with its attendant storm frequency increases, droughts, wildfires, intense rainfalls, storm surges, the “polar vortex,” the rising sea level and the rest of it — is ours to keep.
Evidence of this mounts daily. Just within the days surrounding the 2014 RIMS conference, wildfires ravaged states on the East and West coasts, tornadoes ripped a path across the South Central United States, and severe floods battered Florida and Alabama. That convergence of calamities no longer seems to strike anyone as shocking. In the years and decades to come, these events are expected to increase in both frequency and severity. In other words, welcome to the new normal.
Superstorm Sandy tested the mettle of many, and served as a wake-up call to those who underestimated the complexity of the climate risks they face. Organizations were brought up short by just how underprepared they really were — and what that could mean to their bottom lines. Risk managers, both public and private, are beginning to parse out what climate change really means and what its total implications are for the organizations they serve.
That task can seem daunting. There are multiple perils involved, which have an exponential impact on possible exposures.
“One of the challenges of climate risk is that for most people, it’s the chocolate elephant — it’s just too big to eat,” said Chris Smy, managing director and global practice leader with Marsh’s environmental practice. That makes it tempting to throw up one’s hands and say, “I can’t solve this.”
The threat seems both too large and too distant. Many reports and articles about climate change include the phrase “by the end of the century …” easily lulling leaders into thinking of it as something that need not be addressed right now, especially when matters such as cyber risk seem so much more immediately pressing.
But the increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events is apparent. At the same time, we’re seeing populations gravitate toward cities, and scientists have concluded that cities are warming at a faster rate than rural areas. These facts alone make for a dangerous combination. The population shift toward urban areas also means that many companies don’t have the option to avoid doing business in exposure-prone areas. They need to be where the customers are.
“You have more frequency and severity, and that is exacerbated by more people at risk and more assets to be damaged,” said Bob Petrilli, head of North America, Swiss Re Corporate Solutions. “It’s a triple whammy — it’s multiple economic issues coming together to make things that much worse.”
In the face of these challenges, a dialogue has begun among both corporations and public entities about the concept of resiliency and how to achieve it. What “resilience” means will be different for every company. But it must encompass both the means to minimize exposures and to plan for all contingencies, as well as a clear roadmap to recovery.
Assessing exposures surrounding climate risk is a more acrobatic exercise than some risk managers are accustomed to. It will take a deep dive into the “what ifs” of each possible peril, looking beyond clear property risks and into anything that could impact a company’s supply chain, as well as a thorough examination of factors that could create business continuity disruptions. For diligent companies, that sounds like standard best practices, but climate risk gives it a new flavor many have not yet tasted. What if the increased frequency of storms, over time, erodes the reliability of power delivery to one or several of my facilities? Could storm surge threaten any of the key bridges we use to transport products out or bring raw materials in? What if there’s a lack of potable water in the city where my key factory is located, or their food supply is sharply diminished by drought conditions? What if threats to the food or water supply create new diseases that incapacitate a large percentage of my workforce in that region?
“One of the challenges of climate risk is that for most people, it’s the chocolate elephant — it’s just too big to eat.” — Chris Smy, managing director and global practice leader, Marsh
That’s not to say that companies need jump on every risk identified. It’s a matter of eliminating the element of surprise. “The horizon may be different,” said John Marren, director of global risk and insurance management for CSL Behring, at a session at this year’s RIMS conference, “but we wanted to have it all on the radar.”
A New Discussion
As companies confront the real problems posed by climate risk, the more they will be faced with the reality that individual companies cannot effectively mitigate every aspect on their own.
“What we’re finally starting to notice is a shift toward this idea of comprehensive risk management,” said Alex Kaplan, vice president, global partnerships for Swiss Re. “It’s not just about your own resilience but it’s also about the community around you. For instance, if you have, say, a corporation that’s based in a city. They could have state-of-the-art technology and could be insured to the teeth, but the city around them ends up collapsing.”
A poignant and very real example of this, said Kaplan, is the Toyota plant in the Turkish city of Van. “It was up to the most incredible standards of seismic protection. So when they had an earthquake in 2011, the factory was virtually unscathed.” However, Kaplan explained, 600 people in the surrounding community were killed, 6,000 buildings were destroyed and 60,000 people were left homeless. “So even though Toyota was physically OK, none of its workers could get to work. And frankly, even if they could get to work, they probably had bigger problems to worry about.”
The corporation with the best risk management, the best strategy and the best risk transfer still has to be aware of where they’re located and what around them could also be impacted and prevent them from moving forward, said Swiss Re’s Petrilli.
“A corporation can’t really survive and thrive unless it’s in a location that has a resiliency plan, and if you’re not talking about that together, then you’re never going to get there,” he said. “This public-private partnership type of approach and thought process is relatively new to our industry — but I think it is critically important.”
These ideas — which are spreading slowly — represent a fundamental shift in how climate risk is perceived.
“Many of us in the industry have been focusing on not just the idea of resiliency but on this overarching concept of enterprise risk management, but it’s also broader, it’s global, it’s about interconnectedness,” said Lindene Patton, chief climate product officer at Zurich.
However, she added, “People are not accustomed to thinking that broadly.” So, no doubt, there are some that are going to balk at such a bold departure from tradition. Put in perspective, though, it’s only a logical step for companies that are already engaged in their communities from a corporate citizenship standpoint.
“Corporations like to be integrated with the communities they’re in, they support things within the community to raise their own stature,” said Petrilli.
“But they probably haven’t in the past met with the city or the municipality from a risk management standpoint to discuss things like ‘What if this? What would we do?’ Once that dialogue starts, it becomes more of a ‘We’ve all got a dog in this fight’ conversation.”
Experiencing the pain of losses will increasingly drive organizations toward this perspective.
“A corporation can’t really survive and thrive unless it’s in a location that has a resiliency plan, and if you’re not talking about that together, then you’re never going to get there.” Bob Petrilli, head of North America, corporate solutions, Swiss Re
A good example, said Marsh’s Smy, is how, since Superstorm Sandy, there’s been a lot of activity in the New York tri-state area around trying to prepare, as a region, for repeat events of that magnitude.
“There’s an opportunity for organizations to engage with local government,” he said.
As organizations look through the lens of climate risk as a way to assess their risk profiles, they’ll begin to recognize that there are areas they can’t control, said Smy, “and they may well decide, ‘We can no longer be a bystander.’ Once you reach that conclusion … then there’s action that can be taken.” That may take the form of lobbying for changes, investing money in nonprofits conducting resilience studies, seeking out public-private partnerships, or even investing in infrastructure.
“The more we talk, the more we get to the point where there is a joint approach to an event,” said Petrilli. “It kind of screams for some collaboration.”
At the very least, opening a dialogue will help flesh out the breadth of the exposures so that action plans can be developed around them. “What people are beginning to focus on is sharing information and on the idea of public-private partnerships,” said Zurich’s Patton. “[It’s about] trying to just define these externalities … Does the power work? Can you drive down a road? Can you get gasoline? Is the metro running? Those are all questions we’re not used to asking. We’re used to only worrying about the things that are under our control.”
For risk managers who find that the idea of community partnerships is a hard sell to the C-suite, Patton added that the benefits go beyond managing climate risk. Companies can approach their community’s climate risk issues much as they would any other public service project, she said. “Not something huge, not something that would go outside their economic model, but just a twist in the way that they’re interacting with their communities. It has all sorts of co-benefits that come with it … things like brand, value, advertising. It’s a way to rethink how they get their name out in the community” in a way which is moving toward resilience while delivering other benefits.
The nature of climate risk dictates that companies factor climate changes into corporate decision-making just the same way that companies might evaluate market conditions, tax implications, political instability or any other key exposure.
That long-range scope might not be the responsibility of risk management in some organizations.
“That looks a lot more like strategy,” said Marsh’s Smy. “That’s planning, more than managing day-to-day risk.”
Climate risk and resiliency, then, are the place where strategy and risk management are converging. Savvy business leaders will view decisions through the lens of resiliency in order to protect the organization’s interests.
Ultimately, said Smy, this can better position risk managers within an organization. “It creates an opportunity to address something that’s a strategic issue, at the board level, and I think that’s a great opportunity for risk managers to be thoughtful about it and not be kept in the box of insurance.”
“Resiliency is an opportunity for risk managers to elevate their place at the table,” said Andrew Thompson, global lead for catastrophe risk and insurance at Arup.
A true chief risk officer, said Zurich’s Patton, can act as an adviser to other parts of the organization, to help them think more broadly about the effects of climate risk on their decision-making process.
“The goal is to have people — as they’re thinking and planning — ask themselves, ‘Will this make us more or less resilient?’ ” said Max Young, communications director for 100 Resilient Cities, an initiative focused on building global resilience.
Corporate risk management has evolved into a sophisticated function in most corporations, said Petrilli. And now it is being further refined. “It has gone beyond insurance buying and into ERM,” he said.
“Resiliency is an opportunity for risk managers to elevate their place at the table.” — Andrew Thompson, global lead, catastrophe risk and insurance, Arup
“The board of directors needs to know not only what their operations are going to look like in the next year and the next cycle, but also that nothing is going to knock that off track.” And they also need to know that if an event does happen, there’s a well-thought-out plan in place that will maintain the company’s vitality. “That takes real strategic thinking,” he said.
Related R&I Coverage:
Climate Change Hits the Courts
Municipalities have plenty of reasons to be receptive to the idea of public-private partnerships to further the cause of climate resiliency.
Add one more to the list: In a first-of-its-kind legal move, Farmers Insurance is suing Chicago and about 200 local municipalities for allegedly failing to adequately prepare for the impact of climate change.
The impetus for the lawsuit is the losses related to a storm that hit the Chicago region on April 17, 2013. The storm shut down major expressways and flooded hundreds of basements and streets, leaving some areas accessible only by boat.
Farmers claims that the defendants failed to “implement reasonable pre-storm practices” and breached their duty to upgrade sewer and water systems — the source of much of the property damage suffered by Farmers policyholders during the storm.
“If Farmers is successful, that might lead other insurers to file subrogation class actions,” Wystan Ackerman, a partner at Robinson & Cole LLP, told Law360. “But Farmers will face significant challenges in this first-of-its-kind suit.”
Ackerman told the publication that he expects insurers to take a wait-and-see attitude before joining the lawsuit.
“Insurance companies might be comfortable joining the case and [taking] advantage of the work that Farmers is doing if it is able to successfully pursue the case,” Ackerman said to Law360.
The lawsuit cited the Chicago Climate Action Plan as evidence that the towns knew of the danger of increasingly heavier storms.
Cash-strapped municipalities are already wrestling with costs related to climate change. If this lawsuit signals a shift in insurer strategies for mitigating climate change losses, the costs of such lawsuits will likely be passed along from both ends to double-whammy property owners and businesses, in the form of higher insurance premiums and an increased tax burden.