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 dreynolds@lrp.com.
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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 riskletters@lrp.com.
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Sponsored: Liberty International Underwriters

From Coast to Coast

Planning the Left Coast Lifter's complex voyage demands a specialized team of professionals.
By: | January 7, 2015 • 5 min read

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The 3,920-ton Left Coast Lifter, originally built by Fluor Construction to help build the new Bay Bridge in San Francisco, will be integral in rebuilding the Tappan Zee Bridge by 2018.

The Lifter and the Statue of Liberty

When he got the news, Scot Burford could see it as clearly as if somebody handed him an 8 by 11 color photograph.

On January 30,  the Left Coast Lifter, a massive crane originally built by Fluor Construction to help build the new Bay Bridge in San Francisco, steamed past the Statue of Liberty. Excited observers, who saw the crane entering New York Harbor, dubbed it the “The Hudson River Hoister,” honoring its new role in rebuilding the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River.

Powered by two stout-hearted tug boats, the Lauren Foss and the Iver Foss, it took more than five weeks for the huge crane to complete the 6,000 mile ocean journey from San Francisco to New York via the Panama Canal.

Scot took a deep breath and reflected on all the work needed to plan every aspect of the crane’s complicated journey.

A risk engineer at Liberty International Underwriters (LIU), Burford worked with a specialized team of marine insurance and risk management professionals which included John Phillips, LIU’s Hull Product Line Leader, Sean Dollahon, an LIU Marine underwriter, and Rick Falcinelli, LIU’s Marine Risk Engineering Manager, to complete a detailed analysis of the crane’s proposed route. Based on a multitude of factors, the LIU team confirmed the safety of the route, produced clear guidelines for the tug captains that included weather restrictions, predetermined ports of refuge in the case of bad weather as well as specifying the ballast conditions and rigging of tow gear on the tugs.

Of equal importance, the deep expertise and extensive experience of the LIU team ensured that the most knowledgeable local surveyors and tugboat captains with the best safety records were selected for the project. After all, the most careful of plans will only be as effective as the people who execute them.

The tremendous size of the Left Coast Lifter presented some unique challenges in preparing for its voyage.

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The original intention was to dry tow the crane by loading and securing it on a semi-submersible vessel. However, the lack of an American-flagged vessel that could accommodate the Left Coast Lifter created many logistical complexities and it was decided that the crane would be towed on its own barge.

At first, the LIU team was concerned since the barge was not intended for ocean travel and therefore lacked towing skegs and other structural components typically found on oceangoing barges.

But a detailed review of the plan with the client and contractors gave the LIU team confidence. In this instance, the sheer weight and size of the crane provided sufficient stability, and with the addition of a second tug on the barge’s stern, the LIU team, with its knowledge of barges and tugs, was confident the configuration was seaworthy and the barge would travel in a straight line. The team approved the plan and the crane began its successful voyage.

As impressive as the crane and its voyage were, it was just one piece in hundreds that needed to be underwritten and put in place for the Tappan Zee Bridge project to come off.

Time-Sensitive Quote

SponsoredContent_LIUThe rebuilding of the Tappan Zee Bridge, due to be completed in 2018, is the largest bridge construction project in the modern history of New York. The bridge is 3.1 miles long and will cost more than $3 billion to construct. The twin-span, cable-stayed bridge will be anchored to four mid-river towers.

When veteran contractors American Bridge, Fluor Corp., Granite Construction Northeast and Traylor Bros. formed a joint venture and won the contract to rebuild the Tappan Zee, one of the first things the consortium needed to do was find an insurance partner with the right coverages and technical expertise.

The Marsh broker, Ali Rizvi, Senior Vice President, working with the consortium, was well known to the LIU underwriting and engineering teams. In addition, Burford and the broker had worked on many projects in the past and had a strong relationship. These existing relationships were vital in facilitating efficient communication and data gathering, particularly given the scope and complexity of a project like the Tappan Zee.

And the scope of the project was indeed immense – more than 200 vessels, coming from all over the United States, would be moving construction equipment up the Hudson River.

An integrated team of LIU underwriters and risk engineers (including Burford, Phillips, Dollahon and Falcinelli) got to work evaluating the risk and the proper controls that the project required. Given the global scope of the project, the team’s ability to tap into their tight-knit global network of fellow LIU marine underwriters and engineers with deep industry relationships and expertise was invaluable.

In addition to the large number of vessels, the underwriting process was further complicated by many aspects of the project still being finalized.

“Because the consortium had just won this account, they were still working on contracts and contractors to finalize the deal and were unsure as to where most of the equipment and materials would be coming from,” Burford said.

Despite the massive size of the project and large number of stakeholders, LIU quickly turned around a quote involving three lines of marine coverage, Marine Liability, Project Cargo and Marine Hull & Machinery.

How could LIU produce such a complicated quote in a short period of time? It comes down to integrating risk engineers into the underwriting process, possessing deep industry experience on a global scale and having strong relationships that facilitate communication and trust.

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Photo Credit: New York State Thruway Authority

When completed in 2018, the Tappan Zee will be eight lanes, with four emergency pullover lanes. Commuters sailing across it in their sedans and SUVs might appreciate the view of the Hudson, but they might never grasp the complexity of insuring three marine lines, covering the movements of hundreds of marine vessels carrying very expensive cargo.

Not to mention ferrying a 3,920-ton crane from coast to coast without a hitch.

But that’s what insurance does, in its quiet profundity.

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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 International Underwriters. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.




LIU is part of the Global Specialty Division of Liberty Mutual Insurance.
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