Black Swan

Bigger Than the Big One

The most-feared quake of all results in economic catastrophe.
By: | August 4, 2014 • 8 min read
Since the Tohoku quake in Japan, scientists have changed their thinking on how bad the big one could get.

When it starts at 2:12 p.m. on an October Thursday, residents of California old enough to remember previous big quakes assure themselves that they’ve been through this before.

But in another 10 seconds or so, they see that they are profoundly wrong.

The shaking, stronger than anything ever measured in the United States, goes on and on, not for seconds, but for minutes. Panic builds to horror as people are thrown to the ground, stoned by debris from crumbling office buildings or crushed in their cars under collapsed freeway overpasses.

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This is a quake even bigger than “The Big One,” which modelers tend to peg as something in the 7.6 to 8.0 range on the Richter scale. This is an 8.5 magnitude quake on the San Andreas Fault with an epicenter at Cape Mendocino in Humboldt County, about 250 miles north of San Francisco.

According to modeling firm EQECAT, a subsidiary of CoreLogic, the rupture in Humboldt County triggers a cascade of four contiguous San Andreas Fault segment ruptures that end in Southern California at Indio in the Salton Sea.

It was fire that destroyed much of San Francisco in the legendary 1906 earthquake, but it is salt water this time that plays a substantial role in the undoing of that great city and its bigger cousin, Los Angeles.

In Southern California, the quake provokes a submarine landslide, 100 miles or so in length and miles wide, that runs from the coastal waters of Santa Barbara down to San Luis Rey in San Diego County.

That immense shifting of underwater soil in turn pushes water toward land in a tsunami that runs a mile or so inland in places, damaging large oil refineries in El Segundo and Torrance, and creating an environmental disaster.

Hundreds of billions of dollars of Southern California’s high-priced residential and commercial real estate is erased in 10 minutes. Thousands die within that same time span.

The Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach, the two biggest U.S. container ports, are shut down, severely damaged by the shaking and the tsunami.

To the north, the “Achilles heel” of San Francisco, its bay-side seawall, ruptures in multiple places, spilling bay water into the city.

The four-mile seawall, which runs from Hyde Street and Fisherman’s Wharf in the north to Pier 54 and Channel Street in the south, was cobbled together in 21 sections from 1878 to 1924. The land mass filled in behind the seawall is composed of sand, clay and gravel in places and liquefies under a quake of this magnitude, undermining the city’s Embarcadero roadway and severing crucial utility and public transportation connections.

San Francisco is far better prepared for seismic activity than any U.S. city. But when the seawall fails, the surging bay water undermines downtown office buildings already weakened by the shaking, and several of them collapse.

The destruction of the seawall shuts down the Transbay Tube, the underwater Bay Area Rapid Transit rail connection between San Francisco and Oakland, stranding hundreds of thousands of commuters in the broken cities.

Damage to the Bay Bridge shuts down first-responder access from the east. Damage to the Golden Gate Bridge cuts off aid from the north.

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With emergency responders in the rest of the state frantically working to save their own populations, the city is sealed off from help, stricken and flood ravaged. Its residents tend to the injured and dying as best they can as spiraling smoke obscures the sun and sirens wail unceasingly.

The Fallout

According to EQECAT, the insured losses from a cascading San Andreas rupture measuring 8.5 on the Richter scale would amount to $140 billion.

Before the Tohoku quake of March 2011, scientists thought that an 8.5 on the San Andreas was inconceivable, according to Mahmoud Khater, chief science and technology officer with EQECAT. But before Tohoku, no one thought that the fault in Japan could produce a 9.0. The most it was thought capable of was an 8.4.

Tragically, the world now knows better, after more than 16,000 Japanese deaths and more than $30 billion in insured losses.

“It is really Tohoku that has altered the scientific and actuarial thinking,” Khater said.

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The importance of the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to trade with technology suppliers in Asia is just one piece of the extended business interruption and contingent business interruption aftermath of an 8.5 on the San Andreas that would lead to global economic losses of $1 trillion.

“We clearly agree that it would be a multi-year event,” said Jamie Miller, head of North American property for Swiss Re.

EQECAT estimates that there is $2.2 trillion in residential and commercial property exposure in California. The company said fatalities from the event we envision would run into the tens of thousands.

As gruesome as tens of thousands of deaths would be, and as daunting to the insurance industry as $140 billion in insured losses may appear, Miller and his colleagues at Swiss Re fear that even greater economic calamity awaits, should this event occur.

Alex Kaplan, vice president, global partnerships, public sector business with Swiss Re, points to the low take-up rate of personal lines earthquake insurance in California, the weak financial condition of the federal and local governments, and how that combination could balloon into a national economic calamity.

“You talk about firefighting and other ongoing expenses that aren’t passed on through insurance, coupled with less homeowners to pay for it. That to me is the black swan.” — Jamie Miller, head of North American property, Swiss Re

Consider, under Kaplan’s direction, that only 12 percent of homeowners in California carry earthquake insurance.

Modelers say 1 million homes would be severely damaged in the 8.5 quake.

“That’s 880,000 homes that are uninsured and 660,000 of those homes have mortgages,” Kaplan said.

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Not only will there be hundreds of billions of dollars in damage but as a result of the earthquake, the rate of mortgage defaults and credit losses in California will spike, he said.

“Keep in mind that California has one-sixth of all underwater mortgages,” he added.

In addition, the federal government will be unable to sufficiently bail out local governments in California, which will suffer greatly reduced property tax collections just as public services such as police and fire protection are stretched to the limit.

Jamie Miller, head of North American Property, Swiss Re

Jamie Miller, head of North American Property, Swiss Re

“FEMA’s current funding scheme is inadequate to handle something like this,” Kaplan said.

From 2005 through 2011, the agency’s average disaster appropriation was $1.75 billion per year, Kaplan said. But spending on supplemental appropriations amounted to an average of $4.6 billion per year.

“There is no probabilistic modeling that goes into how the federal government allocates funds,” Kaplan said.

“You talk about firefighting and other ongoing expenses that aren’t passed on through insurance, coupled with less homeowners to pay for it,” Miller said.
“That to me is the black swan.”

Mitigation and Recovery

For years — since the Loma Prieta quake that struck the Bay Area in 1989, and the Northridge quake that hit Los Angeles in 1994 — governments in California have taken aggressive measures to limit the damage that would occur in a major quake and to make California cities more resilient.

In April, with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, San Francisco appointed the world’s first Chief Resiliency Officer, Patrick Otellini. The Rockefeller program will eventually fund 100 such positions worldwide.

“We have a mentality that we need to get over and that is we are the biggest country in the world with the deepest capital markets and The Big One wouldn’t be that big of a deal. I don’t think that’s true.” — Alex Kaplan,  vice president, Swiss Re

In the new position, Otellini is putting to work his 10 years of experience in the private sector helping businesses negotiate the City of San Francisco’s permitting and code requirements process and his more recent job, which he still holds, as the director of the city’s Earthquake Implementation Program.

The host of initiatives he is working on include measuring the vulnerability of the city’s seawall and creating a plan to improve it, coordinating the various utilities whose services the city depends on to increase their post-disaster resiliency, and implementation of a program designed to speed up occupancy of hotels and other businesses post-quake provided they have been inspected by city-approved engineers.

Under Otellini’s direction, the city’s Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance last year that required owners to retrofit and make more earthquake-proof rental properties with wood frame construction, built before 1978, and having five or more residential units with two or more stories over a “soft story” — a story with large open spaces like a garage or retail space with large windows.

The city’s experience in 1989 told it that housing stock would be totally destroyed should The Big One hit.

Otellini said there are 60,000 residents living in rent-controlled housing who would lose that protection in a big quake had the city not taken action.

“Not to mention the impact on our city services and the fact that these buildings tend to be very defining of the architecture of San Francisco,” he said.

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Although it’s not regulating a big piece of the city’s overall commercial and residential building stock, the measure is an example of how governments can begin to pick off lower hanging fruit and make their cities incrementally more resilient.

The Los Angeles City Council took note of the San Francisco measure and passed its own ordinance. The two city governments are now working together on a number of resiliency initiatives and to make state politicians more aware of what else needs to be done.

“I am very excited about that dialogue,” Otellini said.

The efforts of Otellini and others will lessen the cost of The Big One and bring businesses and communities back quicker, said Swiss Re’s Kaplan.

“I am very impressed with how public entities from the city level, to the state level, to the federal level are thinking about the physical resilience of a particular region,” Kaplan said.

“How do you retrofit the buildings, how do you communicate the risk, and they have done a tremendous job of enhancing that over the years,” he said.

“What I am still concerned about is the financial resilience, how are you going to fund these losses?” he asked.

Kaplan said he now sees U.S. cities taking a much more engaged approach to which insurance or insurance-linked securities solutions could help to remove the volatility from public sector balance sheets in the case of a disaster.

“The Mexican government is highly sophisticated in that regard and we see it is starting to happen in the U.S.,” Kaplan said.

“We have a mentality that we need to get over and that is we are the biggest country in the world with the deepest capital markets and The Big One wouldn’t be that big of a deal,” Kaplan said.

“I don’t think that’s true.”

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Additional 2014 black swan stories:

Toxic Tornado

When a nuclear reactor melts down due to a powerful tornado, deadly contamination rains down on a metropolitan area.

Sub-Zero Sucker Punch

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.

Dan Reynolds is editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance. He can be reached at [email protected]
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Infographic: The Risk List

7 Emerging Technology Risks

Innovative technology presents unforeseen risk exposures. Presented by Travelers.
By: | August 26, 2014 • 1 min read
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The Risk List is presented by:

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The R&I Editorial Team may be reached at [email protected]
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Sponsored: Liberty Mutual Insurance

Using Data to Get Through Hail and Back

Commercial property owners must take action to mitigate the risk of hail-related damage.
By: | September 14, 2016 • 6 min read

4,600 hailstorms have rained down on the U.S. as of the end of July according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And these storms have left damage behind, cracking unprotected skylights, damaging exterior siding, dimpling rooftops and destroying HVAC systems.

While storm frequency is almost on par with last year’s 5,400, the rest of the picture isn’t quite the same. For example, the hail zone seems to be shifting south. San Antonio, Texas, a “moderate” hazard hail zone area, typically sees four or five hail storms a year, on average.  Year to date, more than 30 storms have been reported. Overall, Texas has suffered nearly 20 percent of all hail storms this year.

Liberty Mutual’s Ralph Tiede discusses the risk hail poses to large commercial property owners.

The resulting damage is different too, with air conditioning (AC) units accounting for more than a third of the insurance industry’s losses, a greater proportion than in previous years.  “In some cases, we’ve seen properties that sustained no roof damage but had heavily damaged AC systems. This may be a result of smaller hail stone size coupled with high winds,” noted Ralph Tiede, Vice President of Commercial Insurance and Manager of Property Risk Engineering at Liberty Mutual.

Despite the shifting trends, however, these losses are largely preventable if commercial property owners understand their exposures and take steps to mitigate them. By partnering with the right insurer, a company can gain access to the industry-leading resources and expertise to make it happen.

Understanding the Risk through Data

A property owner might know that his property is located in an area prone to hail, but could underestimate the extent of damage a storm could cause. Exposed skylights, solar panels, satellite dishes and other roof-mounted equipment can translate to serious losses.

Three trends that have emerged this hail season.

This is where Liberty Mutual’s property loss control engineers offer critical guidance for customers with large property exposures.

“Our property loss control engineers go out and inspect locations to develop loss estimates,” said Tiede. “They’re looking at the age and condition of the roof, the material it’s made of, and whether equipment is exposed or if there are adequate safeguards in place.”

Liberty Mutual can combine this detail with the hail data it has collected for more than 14 years and use this extensive library to help customers understand their exposures. The company’s proprietary hail tool looks at customer-specific factors, such as roof type, age, condition and geocodes, to better identify potential losses from hail. The tool provides a more detailed view of hail exposure on a micro level, as opposed to more traditional macro views based on zip codes.

“This way, we’re not just looking at a location’s exposure, we’re looking at an account’s cumulative hail exposure and providing a better understanding of where the risk is concentrated,” Tiede said.

Having a good understanding of a company’s specific exposure helps the broker, buyer, and insurer develop an effective insurance program. “Two customers may be in the same area, but if one’s building has a hail resistant roof, protected skylights, and hail guards for HVAC equipment and the other’s has unprotected sky lights and no hail guards or screens on rooftop equipment, they are going to have different levels of exposure. In both scenarios, we can design an insurance program that fits the customer’s situation and helps control the total cost of property risk,” said Brent Chambers, Underwriting Consultant for National Insurance Property at Liberty Mutual.

A Liberty Mutual property loss control engineer consults with the customer on ways to reduce or mitigate the exposure from hail so that the customer can make an informed decision as to where to deploy capital. “It’s not just about protecting a building’s roof and rooftop equipment.  Roof damage can lead to extensive water damage inside a building and in some cases disrupt service, both of which can be costly for a business. By focusing on locations with the most exposure, a risk manager is better able to mitigate future losses,” said Tiede.

Actions commercial property owners can take to mitigate the risk of hail-related damage.

Liberty Mutual property loss control engineers also provide recommendations specific to each location. “We know that hail guards work, so we encourage clients to use those to protect HVAC equipment,” said Ronnie Smith, Senior Account Engineer for National Insurance Property at Liberty Mutual. “Condenser coils in air conditioning systems are fragile and easily damaged, and units don’t necessarily come with built-in protection. It’s important for property owners to take this step proactively to prevent a loss.”

The average cost to fix a condenser coil is $500, but replacing a coil can run at least $500 per ton of cooling, a measurement of air conditioning capacity that refers to the amount of heat needed to melt a ton of ice over a 24-hour period. As one ton of cooling typically covers about 250 square feet of interior space, replacement costs can quickly add up.

Replacing an entire AC unit can run more than $1,000 per ton of cooling. In a 250,000 square foot property, the replacement could easily reach $1 million. Given the increase in hail-related AC damage this year, these are numbers worth knowing.

Other risk mitigation recommendations include regular roof maintenance, such as inspections and repairs to small damages like blisters and installing protective screens over skylights.

“If a roof needs replacing, we also suggest using materials that have been tested and approved by an independent certification laboratory and are durable enough to fit the location’s exposures,” Tiede said. “The last thing a commercial property owner wants is to replace a roof again six months after it’s installed. Experience has shown that ballasted-type roofs are the most resistant to hail damage.”

Using Data to Develop Solutions

When a property owner has an understanding of the size of its exposure and potential losses, it is better able to work with its agent or broker and insurer to develop an insurance program to manage and mitigate potential risks.

“The data and advice we provide help clients focus on the largest risks and better mitigate that exposure,” Smith said. “The more data you have, the more you can understand your risk on a granular level and manage it.”

This data-driven approach to preparedness makes Liberty particularly well-suited to serve large commercial properties with multiple locations in high risk areas.

Prices for roof and air conditioning repairs and replacements have risen over last year, Tiede said, and are likely to grow more expensive as older equipment becomes obsolete. Property owners will be forced to buy newer, pricier replacements than perhaps they had originally planned for.

And if this year’s storm trends are any indication, hail is sometimes an unpredictable foe.

Amidst these shifting trends, the value of an insurer’s expertise in identifying, mitigating and managing hail exposure will be immeasurable to large commercial property owners.

For more information about Liberty Mutual’s commercial property coverage, visit https://business.libertymutualgroup.com/business-insurance.

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This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Liberty Mutual Insurance. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.

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Liberty Mutual Insurance offers a wide range of insurance products and services, including general liability, property, commercial automobile, excess casualty, workers compensation and group benefits.
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