N. Calif. Wildfires Continue Widespread Destruction


The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) increased the National Preparedness Level to 3 today due to wildfire activity in eight Northern California counties, including Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino, where evacuations, road, trail and area closures are in effect. Since their start on the night of Oct. 8, the wildfires in California’s wine country have caused 23 deaths and forced more than 20,000 to evacuate, including the entire city of Calistoga. Additionally, hundreds of residents are missing.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in Napa, Sonoma and Yuba counties on Oct. 9 and the Presidential Major Disaster Declaration was approved by President Trump on Oct. 10 to support state and local responses. The Governor’s Office of Emergency Services also activated the State Operations Center in Mather, California to its highest level.

The 22 uncontained large wildfires have consumed 170,000 acres in California and destroyed nearly 3,500 commercial and residential properties, many of which were in north Santa Rosa. One major difficulty responders are facing is that several fires have merged into complexes—where two or more individual incidents are located in the same general area—with each complex including an average of five fires.

Causes of the fires have not been determined, although downed power lines due to strong winds were reported on Sunday night, about the time of the first fires. Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) said its meteorologists measured the inciting gusts at between 50 and 75 miles per hour on Sunday night, which contributed to nearly 20 North Bay fires and “aided the fires in the Northern parts of the energy company’s service area…and damaged PG&E’s electrical system in some locations.”

The National Weather Service issued a wind advisory for North Bay Hills today. Heavy winds have consistently hindered efforts to control and contain the fires, and have been clocked at 20 to 30 miles per hour in the area, with some gusts expected to reach 50 miles per hour. According to CoreLogic’s hazard risk analysis, more than 170,000 homes in Napa and Santa Rosa alone are at some level of structural risk from the fires, with about 6% at significant risk.

Utilities have been affected, as well. Officials told SFGate that water systems in isolated areas of Fountaingrove and Oakmont in  Sonoma County have been “compromised,” prompting Santa Rosa police to advise that residents boil tap water used for cooking or drinking. Poor water quality has also become an issue in Napa County.

As reported in Risk Management magazine earlier this month, wildfires in the United States from Jan 1. to Sept. 15 had already burned 8.3 million acres, far exceeding the 10-year average. As of September, the Forest Service and Interior Department had spent more than $2 billion fighting fires this year—making 2017 the most expensive wildfire season on record.

Lawsuits Question Arkema Emergency Preparedness Plan

Last week officials in Harris County, Texas were granted permission to file a lawsuit against international chemical company, Arkema, Inc., in attempt to recover the costs of responding to the crisis at the company’s plant in Crosby during Hurricane Harvey in August into September. The County has asked a court to review the plant’s environmental practices and disaster preparedness plan and to determine how, if at all, it was updated to reflect the projections of 50-plus inches of rain in the days leading up to Harvey’s landfall.

The New York Times reported that in its risk management plan to the federal government, Arkema indicated that floods and hurricanes, as well as power failure and loss of cooling, were threats to its Crosby chemical plant. In its filing with the government, however, Arkema did not provide contingency plans to address those concerns, the Times said.

As previously reported, several feet of floodwaters caused a power outage which subsequently prevented Arkema plant staff from ensuring that nearly 500,000 tons of organic peroxides were kept cooled and stable. The chemicals eventually overheated and caused a series of explosions which started in late August into the first week of September. This led to a mandatory 1.5-mile evacuation of the area, affecting about 300 homes and many nearby businesses.

Local media reported that Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan is expected to file the lawsuit this week. “The company’s lack of preparedness caused a crisis on top of this horrific storm,” Ryan said in a statement. “Dozens of first responders were required by this emergency caused by Arkema when their services were desperately needed elsewhere.”

According to the County’s statement:

Investigations conducted by the Harris County Pollution Control Services and the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office uncovered serious violations of the Texas Clean Air Act. Ryan will seek to recover the County’s costs for responding to the week-long incident.

This is the second suit to arise from the Arkema plant’s explosions. On Sept. 7, seven first responders filed a negligence lawsuit against Arkema, alleging they were not warned of the smoke and fumes and their effects prior to arriving. The responders claim they became ill shortly after they began working on the scene following the Aug. 31 explosion; many left vomiting, gasping for air and unable to breathe during and after rescue efforts.

The Texas Tribune reported that the lawsuit was updated in late September, swelling to include six additional first responders and a number of area homeowners. They claim to have suffered “upper respiratory infections, bronchitis, pneumonia, itchy, burning eyes, tight, burning throats and the like—illnesses and injuries that did not exist prior to the explosions and fires at the Arkema facility and illnesses resulting from and exacerbated by the explosions and fire at the Arkema facility.” Plaintiffs are seeking more than $1 million in damages, according to the suit.

The third lawsuit was filed Oct. 2 by nearby residents who claim their properties were contaminated with toxins. The federal suit details how residents are now suffering from medical problems ranging from scaling and rashes to respiratory problems.

“Based on testing results received to date, Arkema has not detected chemicals in off-site ash, soil, surface or drinking water samples that exceeded Residential Protective Concentration Levels established by TCEQ for soil and groundwater,” company spokesperson Janet Smith said in an email to Houston Public Media.

Harris County’s full statement can be found here.

Reputational Crises Put CEOs at Risk

When reputational crises hit, market cap, sales, margins and profits are all on the line. And these situations are becoming more frequent—and more costly—than ever, with a recent study showing an increase in losses from reputational attacks increasing by more than 400% in the past five years.

But it is not only the corporate entity facing challenges, individuals in leadership—particularly CEOs—face personal risk as well. It has become clear that CEOs need tools to protect themselves as well as their companies’ reputations. Since damage from reputational attacks takes place in the court of public opinion, traditional liability solutions, such as directors and officers coverage, are not effective. But new tools are available in the form of a reputation assurance solution that can help deter attacks from even happening and bundled insurances to mitigate the damage when they do occur.

Research by Steel City Re has found that:

  • Financial losses related to reputational attacks have increased by more than 400% in the past five years, a trend that continues.
  • There is an increase in public anger and, as a result, more blame is being cast upon recognizable targets, such as CEOs.
  • Anger by stakeholders is fueled by disappointment—the gap between expectations and reality—which is all too often fueled by the company’s own actions.

Against that backdrop, the turnover rate among CEOs is increasing, with 58 of the S&P 500’s CEOs transitioning out of their jobs in 2016 according to SpencerStuart (although not all as a result of reputational crises). That is the highest number since 2006, a 13% increase over 2015, and a 57% increase over 2012.

If that weren’t enough reason for concern, history shows that when strong companies and their brands come under fire, their reputations eventually recover, despite the initial and medium-term impacts. Individual reputations of those companies’ leadership are not nearly as resilient, however, especially at a time when society; be it the media, social media, politicians or direct stakeholders; seems intent on personifying crises and affixing blame on individuals in positions of authority. And for CEOs, a reputational crises can affect their career and compensation for many years ahead.

In this environment, it is essential that risk managers understand the tools that are available to protect both companies and senior executives personally. Serving as a third-party warranty and available only to highly qualified insureds, reputation insurance attests to the efficacy of the company’s governance and operational practices, as adopted and overseen by the board and implemented by the CEO. Such coverage can deter reputational attacks in much the same way as a security sign on the front lawn deters burglars. It is a sign of quality governance. And when incidents do occur, it provides a built in alternative narrative to counter the attacks that are bound to occur. Finally, it gives the company and key individuals financial indemnification to mitigate any damage that ultimately does take place.

Just as “doing the right thing” did not protect directors and officers from liability in the era before the wide adoption of D&O insurance, it is no guarantee that attacks in the court of public opinion won’t take a significant financial toll. But it is one of the few solutions proven in the court of public opinion. In today’s culture, reputations are in jeopardy as never before and risk managers must utilize all tools available to protect those on the front lines.

Protecting Employees in the Face of International Risks

Increasing globalization and the growing world market presents employees with opportunities to travel and experience new countries and cultures. With travel comes risk, however. In the event of an unforeseen incident, it is an organization’s top priority to ensure its employees are safe and out of harm’s way.

By following proactive travel risk management strategies, employers can help ensure not only the safety of their employees abroad, but also the success of their businesses while avoiding major financial, legal and reputation costs. When developing travel policies, companies must consider the health, safety and security risks that their employees could encounter.

Security Risks
The frightening unknowns of crises such as sudden earthquakes or airport terror attacks can cause distress and chaos. It is the duty of a company’s human resources department to ensure employees are safe and secure, as being unprepared for such events could have dire consequences. For the best outcome, companies should proactively develop travel risk management plans before disaster strikes. Consider these guidelines for your company’s travel emergency plans:

  • Share information. Ensure employees are educated on how to avoid security risks in their destinations and share corresponding safety advice.
  • Develop a communication plan. Decide how employees should contact HR and/or other crisis response team members and vice versa in the event of an emergency.
  • Give employees information about who to contact if they’re in an emergency scenario. Create staffing patterns or third party resources that can accommodate after-hours calls.
  • Consider rearranging travel plans if there’s a high security risk. Use technologies, such as video conferencing, to keep business rolling as usual if employees need to conduct in-person meetings in destinations where it may be temporarily unsafe to travel.
  • Encourage employees to enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). The app provides updated travel warnings and alerts via email. It can also help the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate locate individuals in the event of a disaster.

Health Risks
Recent disease outbreaks in several countries have caused concern among business and leisure travelers alike. If organizations have plans for employees to travel to areas experiencing widespread illness, consider exercising flexibility. If a disease epidemic is dominating news headlines, there is a good chance employees will be concerned about going to a destination that’s affected. In these cases, advise alternative options such as video calls or contacting local partners to help out. On the other hand, if employees elect to travel to the location, it is the employer’s job to ensure they have the knowledge and resources they need to have a safe and successful trip. To help protect the health of a traveling employee, HR professionals should:

  • Research and understand destination-specific health risks and share this information with employees. Education is essential to preventing life-threatening situations.
  • Ask employees to fill out personal medical information Forms. An employee should bring a copy on the trip and also leave copies with trusted friends or family. In the event of a medical emergency, the trustees will be able to obtain important personal medical details from the document, such as insurance coverage, current or past medical conditions and emergency contact information.
  • Remind employees to carry prescription paperwork. This can prevent issues at airport security and can be useful should a new or similar prescription be necessary locally.
  • Confirm that employees are covered by health insurance that is accepted overseas. This will help avoid monstrous fees later on.

Potential Costs for the Business
The costs of not following these strategies can be far-reaching. Your employees’ health and safety is always of utmost importance. However, there are also some continuity issues to consider.

At the most basic level, a health or safety issue that affects a traveling employee will likely cause a loss in productivity and, therefore, an impact to your organization’s bottom line. Companies could furthermore face cancellation fees, lost deposits, unused inventory or lost sales. Additionally, medical bills, medical evacuations and security evacuations can pose huge financial burdens on both employees and the company.

Furthermore, an organization that doesn’t adequately prepare for potential risks and therefore compromises an employee’s safety can lose loyalty quickly. If employees know their colleagues were put in risky situations, they will likely lose trust in their companies—which could cause engagement (and business results) to decline.

Adding to the strain of a disillusioned workforce, legal disputes could arise. An injured worker seeking remedies could bring an injury claim against their employer. The cost a company could face when it comes to duty of care disputes depends on the complexity of the case, the length of time and whether it reaches a full trial. Businesses should be prepared for the possibility of facing court cases by following key risk management strategies before being pulled through lengthy and costly litigation processes.

There are also reputation costs to consider. One of the most damaging scenarios may be that the company’s failure to fulfill their duty of care obligation leads to media headlines resulting in serious brand damage. In this case, the news can mar the company’s reputation, causing stakeholders to pull away and resulting in devastating loss in revenue.

Above all, employees are the backbone of an organization, and their safety and security should be the top priority for every business. Devising a sound risk management plan for travelling employees is crucial for ensuring the safety of employees as well as the longevity of your business.