New Bill Would Toughen Calif. Dam Inspections

DWR Photo: Lake Oroville on Jan. 19, 2018 with lake levels at 707 feet.

A year after the spillway collapse at the Oroville Dam, leading to evacuations of almost 200,000 residents and a beat-the-clock patching job to avoid a break in the tallest dam in the United States, new legislation to strengthen inspections of dams awaits approval of California Gov. Jerry Brown.

The bill would require annual inspections for high hazard dams, raise inspection standards and require consultation with independent experts every 10 years, according to ABC News.

As reported by Risk Management Magazine, 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.

A recent report of the root-cause of the spillway failure by the Independent Forensic Team (IFC), which includes members of the Association of State Dam Safety Officials and the United States Society of Dams, notes that:

There was no single root cause of the Oroville Dam spillway incident, nor was there a simple chain of events that led to the failure of the service spillway chute slab, the subsequent overtopping of the emergency spillway crest structure, and the necessity of the evacuation order. Rather, the incident was caused by a complex interaction of relatively common physical, human, organizational, and industry factors, starting with the design of the project and continuing until the incident. The physical factors can be placed into two general categories:

  • Inherent vulnerabilities in the spillway designs and as-constructed conditions, and subsequent chute slab deterioration

  • Poor spillway foundation conditions in some locations

The IFC report concludes that all dam owners in the state need to “reassess current procedures” in light of its findings.

According to the IFC:

“The fact that this incident happened to the owner of the tallest dam in the United States, under regulation of a federal agency, with repeated evaluation by reputable outside consultants, in a state with the leading dam safety regulatory program, is a wake-up call for everyone involved in dam safety. Challenging current assumptions on what constitutes ‘best practice’ in our industry is overdue.”

Initial response to the spillway failure included erosion mitigation for both spillways during the incident, sediment removal and installation of temporary transmission lines at a cost of $160 million, According to the DWR. Phase-two includes removal of the original 730 feet of the upper chute, replacing it with structural concrete.

Competition Steady Despite Disasters, Fitch Says

In its newest annual outlook report for property and casualty insurers, Fitch Ratings noted that while the 2018 rating outlook for insurers is stable, the fundamental forecast remains negative. Underwriting results deteriorated in the second half of 2017 following events including Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, along with fourth quarter California wildfires. As a result, Fitch projected that industry-estimated statutory net profits would fall by about 50% in 2017, projecting a market combined ratio of 104.4% for the year compared to 100.7% in 2016.

Fitch said that even with the substantial catastrophe-related losses, U.S. property and casualty insurers’ operating performance appears to be on the rebound. The agency estimates that the industry combined ratio will approach break-even levels in 2018 if natural catastrophe-related losses revert towards long-term averages.

How does all this affect the market for insurance buyers? James Auden, managing director at Fitch Ratings, Inc. told the Risk Management Monitor that from a pricing standpoint, while there is some deterioration in results, especially in property, there is plenty of capacity for coverage in just about every segment.

“We haven’t seen a reduction in capital in the broader market, so how much these losses will carry over and make changes in another segment is a question,” he said. “And there are some segments that have been suffering in their own right, such as commercial and personal auto rates, which have been going up tremendously. We’ve seen a lot of turnaround, but there is still a need for rate hikes there. You’ll probably see that continue.”

Property
Markets affected by catastrophe losses should see some large rate increases in property, which could carry over geographically, he said. Commercial property lines, which have been very soft for a while, should see broader increases. Other factors include companies’ loss history and the types of perils they face.

“I think we’ll see more rate increases geographically throughout the market next year,” Auden explained. “They will be higher in areas hit by hurricanes, but we will see them elsewhere as well. In Houston, the losses were much more commercial than residential in nature. In Florida the losses were more skewed to residential, but there were plenty of commercial losses there, too.” How far rates will rise may be dampened by the amount of capacity that still exists. “If you go back historically, when we’ve had true hard markets, it’s been tied to capacity shortages,” he said.

Auden added, “We are not seeing companies withdrawing from the market right now. We did see that in areas like commercial auto over the last couple of years, especially in long-haul trucking. In commercial property, however, I don’t think there is a big withdrawal of capacity. Companies are seeing an opportunity to improve the economics of their business and relieve pressure around pricing.”

M&A
In the area of mergers and acquisitions, there have not been many with the magnitude of last year’s Chubb-Ace deal. “We have had a few things, like Liberty Mutual’s purchase of Ironshore,” he said, adding that “There is always potential for M&As, but one thing that could restrict them is that with the stock market up so much, insurance markets have benefitted, so evaluations are a bit richer and that may limit interest from a value standpoint.”

Lloyd’s
The Lloyd’s market, which has been affected by competitive pricing over several years now, is on negative outlook. “There have been more exposures in the catastrophe piece and a weaker performance, so that has been driving our opinion there,” he said. “And there definitely are a lot of losses at Lloyd’s from the catastrophes this year.”

Competition
Despite the huge losses being seen, however, competition is still going on. “It’s relentless. There are plenty of underwriters out there trying to write the same business and to differentiate themselves on things like service,” Auden said, adding that he believes turnover will remain steady because insurance buyers typically shop their coverage frequently. “I don’t think there will be more turnover than usual.”

He concluded that in the area of property, while that there will be positive rate actions, making response to the losses more substantial, this may not be sustainable. “Do we see multiple carriers with rate increases? We think it’s likely that is not sustainable, unless we have a really bad year next year in terms of catastrophes,” Auden said.

Brand perception: 2017 Hurricane Lessons Learned

The 2017 hurricane season has proven to be particularly trying for many businesses, as they worked around maintaining operations during Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Nate. As a result, many organizations found themselves questioning how to properly adjust policies and practices to mitigate risk and also protect their brand image.

Companies with outbound contact operations have been most susceptible to brand exposure, as they have had to tread carefully to remain efficient while not coming across as uncompassionate to those whose lives have been upended by hurricanes.

So how can companies, especially those with outbound components, reduce the risk to their brand reputation while remaining efficient during disasters? We advise companies to take a compassionate approach to brand and business management.

Look at your risk management strategies
Is your organization proactive or reactive when it comes to brand risk? If recent stories are any indication, it appears that many organizations are still working within a reactive environment, which can cripple brand reputation.

This is especially true for businesses with outbound contact strategies, as a slight miscommunication can cause major brand risks. For example, if your organization is making sales calls when consumers are enduring a hurricane and focused on surviving the disaster, you’re likely to face an unwelcome response. The same rules can be applied following a disastrous event as well. Imagine reaching out to a consumer to inform them that their mortgage payment is late when their house is no longer habitable. In each of these examples, a desire to maintain a “business as usual” approach can cause your consumer to take to the social airways to voice their concerns about your brand. Instead, corporations should focus on proactive outreach during disasters. Key to this process is developing a risk strategy built around both natural and manmade events.

Develop your disaster strategy
To mitigate brand risk, work to develop a strategy that takes a compassionate approach to business operations and your interactions with consumers affected by the disaster. This strategy should look at both outreach efforts as well as internal employee education to ensure that all relevant parties know their role in the strategy. Not only does this help protect your brand integrity and minimize your exposure to risk, but also helps improve customer relations.

I have seen contact centers email or text consumers ahead of a forecasted disaster to ensure that they are properly prepared for the event. I have also seen corporations alter their post-disaster outreach strategies to give consumers proper time to heal and rebuild.

When developing this approach, it is important to remember that not all disasters are forseen, so it is imperative to have distinct approaches to deal with both forecasted (hurricanes) and sporadic disasters (mass shootings, tornadoes), which provide limited-to-no lead time.

The media: your friend or your enemy
With any disaster comes a flood of media attention. Because missteps can cause a brand nightmare, I advise companies with outbound operations to have a story, but not become part of the story. Businesses should build a compassionate brand story that highlights their dedication to corporate social responsibility during disasters.

Coca-Cola, for example, used their brand platform to reinforce their dedication to consumer needs. During Harvey, Coke encouraged local aid workers to break into their Beaumont, Texas plant to pillage for drinking water and other supplies to support the community, which had been ravished by the storm. Not only did Coke take a proactive approach in supporting the community, it also showed that the town’s well-being was far more important than lost revenues.

Compare the positive impact of Coca-Cola’s example to the media scrutiny that Joel Osteen faced during Harvey. Word of his church being temporarily closed to those made homeless quickly surfaced across numerous media channels, placing him and his church on the defensive. Although his church did open soon after this news broke, his compassionate approach remained overshadowed by his negative press.

Time to think beyond revenues
Protecting your brand during disastrous times means thinking beyond revenues and, instead, approaching your prospects/customers as human beings, with an understanding of what they may be going through.

I encourage you to look at your current operating policies and ask if you are taking the steps to become a compassionate brand? If not, it may be time to look at changes that can be made to bring compassion to your operations.

Calif. Debris Removal Presents Health, Environmental Risks

Last week, Santa Barbara, California suffered 20 casualties, countless injuries and millions of dollars in property damage due to the unprecedented mudslides that tore through the city of Montecito. Search and rescue efforts continue in the aftermath of the phenomenon, which was caused by the heavy rains washing away ground laid bare by the Thomas Fire in December 2017. The resulting millions of pounds of debris left behind present biological and environmental risks to the area. Returning residents have been warned to protect against potentially hazardous chemicals and untreated sewage that were swept along with the mudslide debris. Meanwhile, where all this mud and debris will be moved to presents another dilemma.

Public Health Advisory
On Jan. 17, Santa Barbara County’s Public Health Department issued a public health advisory to warn about potential health conditions residents and workers may face as they return to their homes and businesses. The advisory states that “unknown amounts of potentially hazardous chemicals and untreated sewage were swept into the mudslide debris that flowed through impacted areas,” and provided tips for those affected to protect their health amid cleanup and recovery.

The advisory warned that residents also are at risk of wound infections, rashes, illnesses borne from raw sewage mixing into the debris and immersion foot syndrome (also known as “trench foot”), among other injuries.

Although it was encouraged to leave cleanups to professionals, the Health Department recommended Tetanus shots for those engaged in cleanup activities who have not been vaccinated during the past 10 years. It also acknowledged that while the hepatitis A virus could theoretically be spread via exposure to feces or raw sewage, it had not received any reports of that scenario and maintained the probability is low.

Removal Efforts
Temporary solutions for moving and storing the debris are reportedly in place. According to the Los Angeles Times, dump trucks “discarded at least 3,500 tons—or about 7 million pounds—of muck at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, where it will be stored temporarily until crews can sort through it.”

The Times continued:

Up to 1,000 tons more—per day—could eventually make it down to the Calabasas Landfill. To help with cleanup efforts, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday passed a temporary waiver to allow the intake through mid-April.

Santa Paula Materials, which sells rocks and recycled construction debris, will collect the rocks that are hauled out, while Standard Industries, a building material manufacturer, will take the metal and tires, said Lance Klug, spokesman for the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery’s Office of Emergency Services.

Wildfire Cleanup Ongoing
The mudslide debris removal compounds the already daunting task of clearing Thomas wildfire debris in other areas. On Jan. 12, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) announced that its cleanup program had moved nearly 1 million tons from the burn scarred areas and had completed work in Yuba, Butte, Nevada and Lake Counties, but “still had much work to be done.” The Environmental Chemical Corporation will continue the massive undertaking of debris clean-up in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino Counties that were hard-hit during the October 2017 wildfire siege.

The Better Business Bureau issued guidelines for removing both wildfire and mud debris, classifying it into four main categories and recommending disposal in the following ways:

  • Branches, trees and vegetative wastes​ can be separated from the other debris and later can be sent to the community burn pile. These wastes can also be sent to a permitted disposal site.
  • Construction debris​. The structural materials from houses and buildings—such as concrete, boards, shingles, windows, siding and pipes—can be taken to the closest construction and demolition landfill or a permitted municipal solid waste landfill.
  • Other household wastes, ​such as trash and furniture, should be sent to a permitted municipal landfill.
  • Hazardous wastes​. If you believe the waste contains regulated hazardous materials, more care and caution is needed. These wastes should be containerized, labeled, and ultimately sent to a facility that is permitted to store, treat or dispose of hazardous wastes. In these instances, it is important to contact the department to discuss proper disposal procedures.

The guidelines also provide a full list of items that require special disposal, including pool chemicals, tires and commercial and medical waste.