Bigger Than the Big One
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
Additional 2014 black swan stories:
When a nuclear reactor melts down due to a powerful tornado, deadly contamination rains down on a metropolitan area.
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.
7 Emerging Technology Risks
The Embedded Risk Engineer
Not long ago, concepts such as solar panels, nanotechnology, battery-powered electric vehicles and “green” buildings were more pipe dream than reality. Today, with those trends a growing part of the global marketplace, insurers need ongoing, in-depth, real-time data for optimal underwriting in order to give buyers proper coverage and accurate pricing.
As one leader of Aspen Insurance’s loss control risk engineering team, Troy Bickerstaff knows better than most the value of staying ahead of the curve when it comes to emerging trends and their potential impact on insurance buyers.
“Our underwriters at Aspen Insurance are plugged into what’s happening with today’s exciting technology developments,” Bickerstaff said. “By using specialized, dedicated risk engineers to deliver unparalleled support to our underwriting teams, we can meet emerging marketplace needs. For insureds in these areas, the result is the best possible approach to risk management, insurance programs and pricing.”
“We evaluate all possible hazards, including the insured’s quality management system, their safety and quality standards, their recall process – anything and everything that goes into their product. Then, we advise the underwriters during the application process.”
– Troy Bickerstaff, Assistant Vice President and Loss Control Manager, Aspen Insurance
Aspen Insurance utilizes a concept by which an underwriting team includes an embedded engineer who works closely with the team’s underwriters and clients. This dedicated professional focuses on supporting the team in meeting the specific needs of a client and continually advises on the evolution of emerging risks associated within the team’s industry vertical.
Bickerstaff explained that Aspen Insurance’s risk engineering approach differs from other carriers that typically offer a centralized loss control/engineering department, primarily because they provide a general approach to support of underwriting.
“The difference in the various approaches to risk engineering is similar to specialization in medicine. If you need open-heart surgery, would you want a general surgeon or a cardiothoracic surgeon?” he asked. “Similarly, if your business faces specialized risks, you need the deep expertise of underwriters and engineers well-versed in the nuances of your industry.”
Bickerstaff and his colleagues support the underwriting teams across Aspen Insurance in four key ways:
Evaluating individual risk
To best understand a potential insured’s risk portfolio, the Aspen Insurance team reviews each new submission along with an applicant’s website, history of product recall and compliance with industry standards, in addition to certifications to assess what types of exposures may emerge. Bickerstaff noted that Aspen Insurance’s claims team is also involved in this process, including in respect of all risk engineering communications with the underwriting team. This tight collaboration between underwriting, engineering and claims is a key differentiator for Aspen US Insurance in the market.
If a new technology is part of a coverage application submission, Bickerstaff will also launch an engineering review of the risk, delivering valuable information to the underwriters, who in turn can utilize the data to help insureds find ways to improve their products and potentially reduce expensive product liability exposures, and possibly even claims.
When a company looking to import foreign-made tires applied for coverage, Bickerstaff created a document outlining all the major “key points for casualty,” including factors such as improper curing, use of over-aged rubber and contaminants in the tire itself. Underwriters then used that report with the potential insured, helping them avoid any potential pitfalls in importing foreign-made tires.
“We evaluate all possible hazards, including the insured’s quality management system, their safety and quality standards, their recall process – anything and everything that goes into their product,” he said. “Then, we advise the underwriters during the application process.”
Conducting a class of risk consultation
Based on underwriting submission trends or individual risks, the risk engineering team often identifies red flags with certain exposures and prepare detailed “guide sheets” outlining key information about the overall risk to support the analysis of underwriting teams.
Bickerstaff created two such guide sheets related to electric vehicles, an emerging, popular alternative to gas-powered vehicles. One guide sheet detailed specific fire hazards associated with electric vehicles (higher voltage, weight distribution and battery blockage), while the other focused on specific fire hazards associated with the lithium ion (Li-Ion) batteries used to power electric vehicles, including ways to mitigate associated risks. Both guide sheets proved helpful to companies looking for coverage who manufactured both Li-Ion batteries and electric cars.
“We undertake a very detailed analysis for insureds in which we typically outline the kinds of claims that could happen, the severity, and what measures an insured would need to have in place to proactively minimize claims scenarios. This additional level of risk analysis is something insureds really value and appreciate.”
Evaluating long-term exposures
As a natural extension of the risk consultation effort, Bickerstaff also conducts long-term research and keeps abreast of different types of exposures through monitoring various media and publications, attending lectures and maintaining research contacts on the academic level. Insureds use Bickerstaff’s research to strengthen their loss control efforts, thereby potentially reducing claims and, as a result, keep overall costs down.
“For areas such as nanotechnology or ‘green’ buildings, we conduct research and create guide sheets,” he said. “But we also constantly stay abreast of the long-term aspects of the risks in those areas, keeping up with industry changes and the evolution of specific technologies”.
Providing added risk management expertise directly to insureds
Finally, the risk engineering group provides additional support for insureds via a face-to-face policyholder consultation at the insured’s location, if necessary.
Bickerstaff visited a commercial lawnmower manufacturer and identified several cost-saving enhancement opportunities: guidance on contractual wordings, recommendations for strengthening the weldment inspection program and education on managing increased liability exposures due to the use of temporary workers during the company’s peak manufacturing season. As a result, with that added data, the insured was able to reduce costs and potential claims.
“Among the many advantages we offer to insureds, a key benefit we offer is to ensure that our underwriting is based on the underwriters’ full knowledge of the risk, including access to the best available, most accurate data about the unique exposures relevant to the industry, technology, or niche,” Bickerstaff said, adding that the engineering team’s expertise helps underwriters deliver the best possible outcome, but even more importantly, Aspen Insurance’s specialized, integrated risk engineering strategy ultimately benefits the insured.
“The difference in the various approaches to risk engineering is similar to specialization in medicine. If you need open-heart surgery, would you want a general surgeon or a cardiothoracic surgeon? Similarly, if your business faces specialized risks, you need the deep expertise of underwriters and engineers well-versed in the nuances of your industry.”
“Insureds can feel comfortable and confident they are buying a high-quality, value-added, fairly priced product to meet their specific needs,” he said. “With many of these new, emerging risks, that is a critical benefit to them and a competitive advantage for us.”
To learn more about how Aspen Insurance’s loss control risk engineering and underwriting teams can support your organization, contact your broker.
Troy Bickerstaff, Assistant Vice President and Loss Control Manager at Aspen Insurance, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Aspen Insurance. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.
This article is provided for news and information purposes only and does not necessarily represent Aspen’s views and does constitute legal advice. This article reflects the opinion of the author at the time it was written taking into account market, regulatory and other conditions at the time of writing which may change over time. Aspen does not undertake a duty to update the article.