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.
7 Emerging Technology Risks
RIMS Recap: Tech Trends that Could Change Everything
Last month, Gordon Clemons, CEO and Chairman of CorVel Corporation, presented at the RIMS Conference in New Orleans, La. about emerging technology and how it is impacting risk management and workers’ compensation. The discussion served as a springboard for new insights on how technology will change the industry, and reaffirmed the need for integrated systems and human interaction for the best results.
The presentation noted the future is here – and technology is constantly evolving in hopes of outpacing tomorrow’s needs. As these technology platforms become more inherent in daily life, the gap in translating their utilization to workers’ compensation will begin to close.
Technology in Healthcare
While many consumer-based technology advancements exist in other industries, perhaps most notably in the retail space helping vendors to reduce various delays in the sales experience, people may forget that healthcare, too, is a consumer industry. And as such, healthcare also experiences workflow lags, which can be collapsed.
While patients and claims may not lend themselves as freely to mobile applications and technology that subscribes to the “Internet of Things” philosophy, the rapid rate of development foretells the not-too-far-off arrival of the “a-ha,” “wow factor”-type application that consumers are seeking in the healthcare industry.
Once we get there, we can only expect that the Pangea of resources will yield better outcomes. The potential impact to medical management includes more affordable/accessible healthcare, patient convenience, personal assistance, automatic inputs to claims systems and less administration from both patients and injured workers.
“Healthcare is stubborn about change. There are more data points in healthcare and there is a greater need for high quality and accuracy,” Clemons said.
Tech Trends for the Next Digital Decade
As an industry advocate in all things innovation, CorVel has been keeping tabs on emerging tech trends. As they begin to influence in other industries, it sparks the question – will they eventually change workers’ compensation?
Here are some of the trends on CorVel’s radar:
Smart phones and tablets were the first mobile devices to really start to gain traction across people’s personal lives. Since then, wearables (like Fitbits and smart watches) have been part of the next digital generation to be taken up by consumers.
As these personal devices quickly advance, wearables could offer payors and employers added insight into the wellness of claimants through the extent of their retrievable data.
Beacons are devices that use low-energy Bluetooth connections to communicate messages or triggers directly to a smart device (such as a phone or tablet). Retailers have started using this technology, sending offers to near-by consumers’ phones. Now the concepts of smart mirrors and smart walls offer a one-stop-shop with recommendations related to the preferences of the shopper – making a hyper-efficient business model. It is possible that we could see these devices adapted to being a catalyst for healthcare’s business model by reducing the delays of administrative work.
Formally known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), drones can be remote-controlled or flown autonomously through pre-defined flight plans within their internal systems. Some carriers are testing the use of drones to potentially be used to evaluate property damage and responding to natural disasters.
As most injuries reported in workers’ compensation are musculoskeletal injuries, the industry lends itself well to the benefits of telecommunications and telemedicine. With the rise of electronic capabilities, telemedicine becomes another option to help guide an injured worker through their entire episode of care, reducing time delays.
In order to get to that point in time, implementing these trends (and those that are yet to be launched) will only be as successful as the population willing to accept them. Buy-in will require a commitment to the long-standing pillars of the industry. According to Clemons, “While technology can truly move the needle in workers’ compensation, it will take more than bells and whistles to maximize its impact.”
“People’s feelings are valid. The skepticism surrounding new technology is not misplaced, but neither is the enthusiasm,” Clemons said.
New Trends, Same Priorities
Beyond the buzzwords and hype surrounding the latest apps and devices, for new technology to succeed within the workers’ compensation realm, it boils down to the two primary concepts that drive the industry to begin with – effective infrastructure and a people-first philosophy.
The power of applicable resources and the actionable data that results from them is in the foundation of the systems themselves; that primarily being through the influence of integration. It is not a new concept; however, as technology advances and the reach of analytic capabilities broadens, it is important to find a provider that can harness this data and channel it into effective workflows to increase efficiencies and promote better outcomes.
CorVel’s proprietary claims management system has been developed and supported by an in-house, full-time information systems division to be intuitive and user-friendly. Complex, proprietary algorithms link codified data across the system, facilitating collaboration between services, workflows, customers, and technology and eliminating the risk that a crucial piece of information will be missed. The result is an active “ecosystem” providing customers with actionable data to provide the most accurate, comprehensive picture at any time, while also collapsing inherent delays.
For the injured worker, the critical human touch connection in the workers’ compensation process can never be minimized. By cutting lag time throughout the various inefficiencies underlying the industry’s workflows, CorVel can connect injured workers with quality care sooner. As systems advance, claims and managed care associates do not have to spend as much time on administrative work and will instead be able to devote more time to the injured workers, reviving the human touch aspect that is just as impactful within the industry.
Regardless of the technology that lies ahead, CorVel looks to the future with investments in innovation, while not losing sight of their role and responsibility to clients and patients. Dedicated to constant improvement for the services they provide injured workers and industry payors, CorVel is committed to improving industry services one app, click, drone (or whatever is yet to come) at a time – perhaps something to discuss in San Diego at next year’s RIMS conference.
For more information, visit corvel.com.
This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with CorVel Corporation. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.