About Caroline McDonald

Caroline McDonald is the senior editor of the Risk Management Monitor and Risk Management magazine.

Casualties Mount as Calif. Fire Continues to Burn

The massive Thomas Fire in Ventura County has claimed another victim. CalFire Engineer Cory Iverson was killed while battling the blaze, which has so far burned 252,500 acres and destroyed about 1,000 homes and businesses, according to the federal InciWeb fire information website. One other death connected to the fire was a woman killed in a car crash while evacuating.

Iverson had been with the agency since 2009 and was assigned to the Thomas Fire as part of a fire-engine strike team from CalFire’s San Diego unit.

“I know I speak for us all in saying our hearts go out to our CalFire colleagues during this difficult time. This is a tragic reminder of the dangerous work that our firefighters do every day,” Teresa Benson forest supervisor, Los Padres National Forest said in a statement. “The Thomas Fire has many unprecedented conditions and complexities that challenge the already demanding job of fire suppression.”

The Thomas fire broke out Dec. 4 in Ojai, northwest of Los Angeles. Strong Santa Ana winds helped it to quickly spread to the city of Ventura, according to InciWeb.

Up to 85,000 people were impacted by power outages and surges in the Santa Barbara area, according to the Southern California Edison utility company. Santa Ana winds are expected to continue on Friday and through the weekend, and could reach up to 30 miles per hour in some areas. Ventura County, northwest of Los Angeles, has ordered mandatory evacuation of a portion of the county.

The Thomas fire has also taken a toll on agriculture, which is a $45 billion industry in California employing more than 400,000 people in the state. The wildfire struck the largest avocado- and lemon-producing region in the United States. A 200-acre farm lost 80% of its avocado crop, according to the New York Times. Avocado orchards are more vulnerable because of their location near hillsides in the path of the fire.

Consumers are unlikely to see a surge in the price of avocados from the fire because most avocados bought in the United States are grown in Mexico. A spike in lemon prices is unlikely to occur even though Ventura County produces more than 40% of the national output, because any lost crop can be made up by increasing imports, John Krist, chief executive of the Ventura County Farm Bureau told the Times.

Oroville Dam Repairs Concern Calif. Residents

Construction of a new spillway at the Oroville Dam in northern California—the largest dam in the U.S.—is underway and is expected to be completed sometime in 2018, according to the California Department of Water Resources. The dam replaces the previous spillway, which was damaged by heavy flooding in February.

Problems at the Oroville Dam began, when the dam’s main sluice was damaged after a winter season of record rain and snowfall, following five years of drought. Torrential rainfall caused water levels to rise so quickly that large amounts needed to be released to prevent the dam from rupturing and sending a wall of water to the communities below.

The force of the cascading water was so strong that it created a large hole in the main sluice, requiring the use of an emergency spillway. This safety backup, however, also nearly failed because the dirt spillway, which had never been fortified by concrete, began to erode, increasing the risk of damage to the dam. In anticipation of a possible disaster, almost 200,000 residents living below the dam were temporarily evacuated.

The dam’s new construction has proved to be contentious at times, with residents expressing concern about small cracks that have appeared in the freshly laid concrete. Rainy season is just ahead and residents are anxious about the possibility of another flood.

State officials said cracking is normal, however, and federal regulators agreed that no immediate repairs are necessary, but not everyone is convinced.

“We heard that in 2009 when we saw DWR fixing cracks on the spillway, that it was completely normal, that it was no concern,” Oroville resident Genoa Widener told the Associated Press. “And then we were told to run for our lives. So you telling us that it’s normal is not enough.”

So far, about a third of the spillway has been fully rebuilt, while the rest has been fortified for the winter with plans to finish it next year. The project is expected to cost about  $500 million.

In preparation for the upcoming winter, Lake Oroville was drained about 80 feet below its normal level, providing extra reservoir storage for incoming water from winter rain and spring snowmelt. On Wednesday, the lake was 200 feet (61 meters) below its maximum capacity, the AP said.

Residents are also upset because state officials have closed a scenic road spanning the top of the dam during the construction. They have deferred a decision about whether it will ever be re-opened due to safety concerns. Several residents said the road closure has cut off their access to recreational areas, the AP reported.

2017 Storms Break Records

The 2017 hurricane season is finally behind us, but it left its mark with two Category 5 hurricanes and one Category 4 striking within weeks of each other, causing an estimated $300 billion in damage. In fact, 2017 broke records, including the strongest storm—Irma—and the longest-lasting storm, which was Hurricane Harvey. Other natural disasters in 2017 also did their share of damage, including hailstorms and 1,496 tornadoes compared to an average of 1,202.

Then there were the wildfires, which burned more than 9 million acres of land.

Highlights of 2017 are summarized below by Interstate:

Insurance Industry Responds to House Approval of NFIP Renewal

Insurance industry trade groups lauded the U.S. House of Representatives’ vote on Nov. 14, reauthorizing the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). The 21st Century Flood Reform Act (H.R. 2874) would reauthorize the program for five years and enact operational changes. Advocates from RIMS, the risk management society, the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, and SmarterSafer.org also asked that the Senate waste no time in passing its version of the measure before its expiration on Dec. 8.

On Sept. 8, President Trump signed legislation passed by both houses to extend NFIP authorization until Dec. 8, which previously had been set to expire Sept. 30.

Dow Jones reports that the act’s reforms include:

  • Authorizing $1 billion to elevate, buy out or mitigate high-risk properties
  • Capping flood insurance premiums at $10,000 per year for homeowners
  • Removing hurdles to the private flood insurance market, which often offers better coverage at lower cost than the NFIP
  • Providing for community flood maps and a homeowner’s ability to appeal their flood designation
  • Better aligning NFIP rates to match a property’s true risk, particularly for in-land and lower-value properties
  • Improving the claims process for flood victims
  • Addressing repeatedly flooded properties, which account for 2% of NFIP policies but 25% of claim payments

While it applauded the U.S. House of Representatives for deciding to reauthorize the NFIP, RIMS, the risk management society, also urged the Senate to quickly follow-up before the program’s Dec. 8 expiration. Allowing the NFIP to expire would have “significant repercussions, impacting both corporate and residential property owners,” said RIMS Vice President Robert Cartwright Jr.

“Nearly five million American consumers rely on the NFIP to protect their homes, properties, and businesses,” said Nat Wienecke, senior vice president of federal government relations at the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America (PCI). “A long-term reauthorization is needed to provide consumers and markets with reliability and stability when it comes to flood insurance coverage.”

SmarterSafer.org, a coalition of taxpayer advocates, environmental groups, insurance interests, housing organizations and mitigation advocates, said in a statement that this year’s “historic hurricane season has pushed the nation’s debt-ridden flood insurance program past the point of bankruptcy once again, so we applaud the House for passing a legislative package that reforms the NFIP to ensure the program is financially sustainable for the future.” The organization also lauded the House for investing in recommended measures including “mapping and mitigation, addressing affordability and providing consumer choice in the flood insurance marketplace.”

The NFIP was created more than 50 years ago to provide affordable flood insurance as private insurers pulled out of the market. The program’s large debt led Congress to cancel $16 billion of its debt last month. NFIP now has about $6 billion to pay claims and $10 billion left that it can borrow from the Treasury Department, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which manages the program.