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
Construction’s New World
Get off a plane at Logan Airport and cross the harbor toward Boston and you will see construction cranes, a lot of them.
Grab an Amtrak train from Philadelphia into New York and pulling into Penn Station, you will see more construction cranes, many more of them. The same scene repeats in Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago.
All that steel and cable in the skyline signifies a construction industry that is growing again, after having the rug pulled out from under it in the Great Recession of 2008-2010.
The cranes these days look the same as cranes looked in 2008, but the risk management and insurance environment in construction is anything but the same now.
A variety of factors are now in play that have drastically changed construction risk underwriting, according to Doug Cauti, a senior vice president and chief underwriting officer with Boston-based Liberty Mutual’s construction practice.
Doug Cauti characterizes the current construction market.
Talent and Margins
For one thing, according to Cauti, the available talent pool in construction is nowhere near what it was pre-recession.
“When the economy went into its downturn, a lot of talent left the business and hasn’t returned,” Cauti said.
Cauti said recent conversations with large contractors in Ohio and Pennsylvania confirmed once again that contractors are facing a workforce that is either aging or very inexperienced. That leads to safety management and project quality concerns at just the moment in time that construction is rebounding.
Doug identifies one of the top risk management issues facing construction firms today.
Workers compensation risks in construction, already a problematic area, are seeing an impact from that dynamic.
Contractors are also facing much more competition. In the past, contractors might have bid on 10 jobs to get one, now they have to bid on 50 or 60 jobs to get one. That’s putting pressure on margins.
“There are a lot of contractors out there competing for business,” Cauti said.
“Margins are going up but not at the same rate as the industry’s recovery,” he added.
Financing and Risk Transfer
Another factor impacting the way construction risk is being underwritten is the size of projects and the way they are being financed. Construction’s recovery from the recession might be slow and steady, but the size of projects requiring risk management and insurance has increased substantially.
In 2010, there were 85 projects under contract nationally that were worth $1 billion or more, according to Cauti. One year later, the percentage of projects of that value or higher had grown by 30 percent, and the trend continues.
A lot of those projects are design-build, a relatively new approach to construction that Liberty Mutual has grown comfortable underwriting over the years. But design-build is still an additional complication, blurring the traditional lines of responsibility.
“We did it when the growth in contractor-controlled insurance programs happened, we did it with the evolution in design-build and we’re laying the groundwork to be a thought leader in public-private partnerships and integrated project delivery.”
– Doug Cauti, Chief Underwriting Officer, Liberty Mutual National Insurance Specialty Construction
Given the funding demands of these much larger and more valuable projects — many of them badly needed public sector infrastructure improvements — public-private partnerships, otherwise known as P3s, are now coming into vogue as a financing option.
But deciding how risk should be allocated, underwritten and transferred in this new arrangement between contractors, the state, and private partners is a relatively new and untested science.
As a thought leader in the underwriting of the design-build approach – and the more traditional design-bid-build – Cauti said construction experts within Liberty Mutual are growing their knowledge to stay in step.
“We did it when the growth in contractor-controlled insurance programs happened, we did it with the evolution in design-build and we’re laying the groundwork to be a thought leader in public-private partnerships and integrated project delivery,” he said.
That means attending relevant industry conferences like the annual IRMI Construction Risk Conference where Liberty Mutual has maintained a significant presence, and engaging in dialogues with contractors and government officials, and maintaining clear and active lines of communications with brokers.
Doug discusses emerging approaches to construction.
Legal and Regulatory
Another change that is creating challenges for construction risk underwriting, according to Cauti, stems from what’s happening in United States courtrooms.
Across the country, how a court interprets coverage can vary widely, especially in the area of construction defect.
“In the past, many jurisdictions viewed construction defect simply as shoddy workmanship and they had to go back and redo it,” Cauti said.
But now, on a state by state basis, courts are ruling that a construction defect is an accident under certain circumstances that may be covered by a contractor’s general liability policy.
In 2014 alone, according to Cauti, Supreme Courts in West Virginia, Connecticut and North Dakota ruled that construction defects can sometimes be considered accidents.
Cauti said doing business with a carrier that pursues contract clarity whenever possible – and that possesses an experienced claims team that can navigate the wide variety of state interpretations – is absolutely essential to the buyer.
Having claim teams not only dedicated to construction but also to construction defect, adds a lot of value to a carrier’s offering.
Doug outlines another top risk management issue facing construction firms in today’s booming market.
Now, as never before, contractors are relying on experienced construction insurance teams to help them address these complexities.
Insurers need to have the engineering expertise to analyze a project, to make sure the right contracting team is in place and to insure that risk exposures are being properly assessed. Another key in a construction insurance team, according to Cauti, is the claims department.
A Strategic Approach
The legal and financing changes that are taking place in the construction market, from a risk transfer standpoint, aren’t going to get ironed out overnight.
Cauti said it could be 10 years until the construction and insurance industries fully understand the complications of public-private partnerships and integrated project delivery, these approaches gain traction, and the state-by-state legal decisions that are causing so much uncertainty can be digested.
In the meantime, an engaged, collaborative approach between carriers, brokers, contractors, and their financing partners will be necessary.
Doug discusses how his area can provide value to project owners and contractors.
For more information on how Liberty Mutual Insurance can help assess your construction risk exposure, contact your broker or Doug Cauti 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 Liberty Mutual Insurance. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.