The Problem With How We Prepare for Disasters

On January 29, Robert Meyer came to New York to speak about disaster resilience. As a co-director of the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Process Center, few know more about the topic than he does.

The crowd was mostly University of Pennsylvania alums who have migrated north to Manhattan, so the tragedy of Hurricane Sandy was fresh on their minds and it became the most common point of reference used by Meyer to explain how we do — and do not — prepare for disasters.

He detailed offered an array of reasons for why we — as individuals and a society — tend to under-prepare for natural hazards. “We tend to be overly myopic, over-concentrating on a small set of preparation actions,” said Meyer.

Interestingly, however, there is an inverse to this. He noted that some people, particularly those who have gone through a traumatic event in the past, like 9/11, do prepare well. They adopt what he called a “psychology of misfortune” and tend to remain extra vigilant.

“That’s unfortunately an outlier,” said Meyer.

Another noteworthy, yet counterintuitive, aspect of preparedness is that most many people actually overestimate the likelihood of bad events. This is based on research, he said, and flies in the face of the often-held belief that the biggest impediment to good preparation is people saying “it won’t happen to me.”

Instead, people believe it will happen to them — they just don’t understand what “it” is.

When surveyed before Sandy, for example, people in the New York area overestimated their risk of getting hit with hurricane-force winds. By a ton. The public in some places put their chances of being hit at some 50%-60%.

The real, scientific likelihood was closer to 10%-20%.

Yet, even though people vastly overestimated their risk, they still maintained an optimistic view about their safety. The huge majority believed the would be safe during the storm.

This speaks to a gross misunderstanding of the risk actually faced.

Outside of a tornado or sustained Category 3 or higher hurricane-strength winds, storm surge and flooding are usually the real risks for most people in most zip codes. Prolonged power outages, particularly in the Northeast in the late fall when cold temperatures are a concern, would also far outrank wind-fueled projectiles as far as a threat to life, security and economy.

In short, people neither understood the science of the storm nor the long-term disruption it could potentially have.

And this wasn’t an anomaly. Meyer noted that, often, it’s not the hurricane itself that you have to prepare for but the two weeks after the hurricane when you don’t have power. But, as with Sandy, many people thought if they got through that first night or two, they would be all set.

This all suggests an lack of understanding, and something all stakeholders in the area of disaster preparedness will have to work to overcome in the months, years and decades ahead.

“We dont have a problem deciding whether to prepare,” said Meyer. “We have a problem deciding how much to prepare.”

Managing Risk at America’s Big Game

As the Super Bowl gets under way Sunday in New Orleans, event organizers will be working feverishly behind the scenes, making certain that all aspects of the game go off without a hitch. From plans that focus on the potential for severe weather to controlling alcohol intake by fans to ensuring the halftime show goes on, organizers and insurers are working around the clock leading up to, during and immediately after the game. I contacted Chris Rogers, director of risk control at Aon Risk Solutions and Lori Shaw, sports and leisure practice leader for Aon Risk Solutions to get their take on the risks and how they are handled.

RM: New Orleans is known for its party atmosphere. How will event organizers protect employees, fans, vendors and facilities from crime and unruly visitors?

Chris Rogers: Event organizers will work closely with local law enforcement personnel and emergency response personnel to assess any risks to employees, fans, vendors or the facilities. A threat assessment will be completed and preparations made and put into place that serve to mitigate or eliminate those threats. The NFL and team owners have made a commitment to providing a safe and secure venue for everyone’s enjoyment. They have also worked closely with organizations, such as [Techniques for Effective Alcohol Management] T.E.A.M. Coalition, to promote the responsible use of alcohol and have provided VIP tickets for the winners of designated driver contests held throughout the season. Event organizers have received outlines and guidelines relating to security matters that are intended to be shared with their personnel and event attendees that provide additional support for those events during this time.

RM: What types of insurance needs to be in place to protect event organizers from myriad of possible risks?

Lori Shaw: Event organizers need to consider not only the traditional lines of insurance purchased by a business enterprise, such as general liability, property, workers compensation and auto, but also specialty coverages designed to protect event-specific activities, such as athletic participant legal liability, volunteer and participant accident, liquor liability, directors and officers, coverage for pyrotechnics, third-party property damage, terrorism (and threat of terrorism) and event cancellation, including adverse weather, communicable disease and non-appearance of essential performers/players/entertainers.

RM: How do event organizers navigate advertising and sponsorship exposures?  

Shaw: For large events, the advertising risk is usually carried by the broadcaster. The risk of broadcast interruption could be passed to the event organizer, and if that is the case, the event organizer would look to secure broadcast interruption insurance.

RM: What happens in the case of extreme weather, such as an off-season hurricane or rare Louisiana snowstorm?

Rogers: The NFL and other sporting organizations have developed plans over the years to address the additional and unique challenges posed by extreme weather. These plans have been developed in conjunction with public and private weather services to ensure that the best information is available to event organizers so that they can respond properly and in a timely manner. These plans are further augmented by the development of emergency contingency plans that address what will be done if the weather affects the game, either just prior to the beginning, or even during the game. If something occurs during the game, the stadium’s “shelter-in-place” plan would have to be activated.

RM: What if the half-time headlining act cannot go on? Are event organizers prepared with a backup plan?

Rogers: A backup plan will greatly depend upon when it becomes apparent that the headliner cannot go on. If it is a few days before the event, a substitute act could possibly be arranged. If the change is something that is sudden and occurs just before halftime, it will mostly depend upon who is involved and what might be an alternative. Perhaps the rest of the pageantry can be expanded or they could cut to the broadcaster’s booth for additional commentary on the game.

Hurricane Sandy Revives Debate Over NFIP

A building in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, is flooded from Hurricane Sandy.

When the five-year extension of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) was signed by President Obama in July 2012, the debate over whether the federal government had a vital role in the flood insurance market seemed to be settled. From 2008 to the signing of the long-term extension, the NFIP had been given an estimated 17 short-term extensions and been allowed to lapse on two separate occasions. Supporters, including RIMS, hoped that the long-term extension’s passage would finally bring certainty to the market, but Hurricane Sandy has once again revived debate over the program.

The NFIP was originally created in 1968 as a way to provide affordable flood insurance to those who lived in the most flood prone areas. The program remained solvent until 2005 when Hurricane Katrina put the program $18 billion in debt. It remained alive by borrowing from the Treasury, but Hurricane Sandy has again placed it in financial crisis.

As the New York Times reports, “Early estimates suggest that Hurricane Sandy will rank as the nation’s second-worst storm for claims paid out by the National Flood Insurance Program. With 115,000 new claims submitted and thousands more being filed each day, the cost could reach $7 billion at a time when the program is allowed, by law, to add only an additional $3 billion to its onerous debt.”

Several reforms were included in the 2012 long-term extension that were meant to place the program on more financially solid ground, including: removing subsidized rates for non-primary residences, businesses or severe repetitive loss properties; increasing the limit for annual rate increases from 10 to 20%; and phasing in rate increases until actuarial rates are achieved. The legislation also requires the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Government Accountability Office to study potential privatization of the NFIP, while the Federal Insurance Office is required to study the current market for natural catastrophe insurance, including issues of affordability.

Supporters of the NFIP argue that these reforms should be allowed to take effect before any further changes to the program are considered, but many critics argue that more drastic reforms are needed immediately. Some critics go so far as to argue that the program should be entirely privatized.

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling has vowed to take up legislation that would do just that, stating, “As Chairman of the Financial Services Committee, I wish to inform all members in this Congress, our committee will take up legislation to transition to a private, innovative, competitive, sustainable flood insurance market.”

As long as the NFIP remains in financial trouble, expect this debate to continue.

Pirate Attacks Decrease Drastically

In the past several years, pirate attacks on vessels in the northern Indian Ocean made headlines as hostages and the ships on which they worked were held for ransom in record numbers. It proved to be an attractive and lucrative career for poor residents of Somalia and surrounding areas — many of whom have little prospects for traditional money-making opportunities.

But pirates haven’t been so successful in recent months. In fact, the U.S. Navy reports that there was an 80% decline in overall attempted attacks in 2012 compared with 2011. In terms of vessels hijacked, the number decreased by almost 75%. The reason for this drastic decrease is simple: self-defense.

As African Business reports:

“The ultimate security measure a commercial ship can adopt is the use of privately contracted armed security teams,” says Andrew Shapiro, Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs of the US State Department. “These teams are often made up of former members of various armed forces, who guard merchant ships during transits through high risk waters,” he told a recent briefing in Washington. “The use of armed private sector security teams has been a potential game changer in combating piracy. To date, not a single ship with armed security personnel aboard has been successfully pirated.”

Other protective measures adopted by merchant shipping includes passing through high risk areas at full speed and erecting physical barriers, such as razor wire, to make it more difficult for pirates to come aboard.

So, even though the threat remains, it seems that companies are taking every effort to prevent attacks on vessels and staff. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted in a 2009 speech, “We may be dealing with a 17th century crime, but we need to bring 21st century solutions to bear.” It seems those 21st century solutions are working.