Recap of 2016 Weather Events

The 2016 hurricane season, which ends today, has been the deadliest since 2005 and the most active and costliest since 2012. In all there were 15 named storms and seven hurricanes, three of them major hurricanes. Hurricane Matthew, a Category 5, was responsible for more than 1,600 deaths and insured loss estimates of about $7 billion.

Other major storms that hit the United States in 2016 include Winter Storm Jonas, Louisiana flooding, hailstorms, tornadoes and hurricanes. For a recap of 2016 storms check out Interstate’s year-in-review infographic:
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Houston Faces ‘Largest Flooding Event Since Tropical Storm Allison’

Historic flooding has left the Houston metropolitan area inundated once again this week, killing at least seven people, flooding 1,000 homes and causing more than $5 billion in estimated damages in Harris County alone. Gov. Greg Abbott declared a state of disaster for nine counties in and around the Houston area. The widespread nature of the disaster prompted the city of Houston to call this the largest flood event since Tropical Storm Allison, which devastated southeast Texas in 2001, causing $9 billion in damage and $1.1 billion in insured losses.

According to Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, about 240 billion gallons of rain fell on the Houston area this week. That’s the equivalent of 363,400 Olympic-size swimming pools, CNN reported. After 10 inches of rainfall fell in six hours Sunday night into Monday, powerful, slow-moving thunderstorms had paralyzed the region Monday, but storms continued through Wednesday.

Having some of the hardest rainfall overnight helped a bit to mitigate the dangers this week. While this made it difficult to predict, it allowed people to better make choices about going out, as opposed to last year’s floods around Memorial Day, Emmett told the Houston Chronicle. Nevertheless, emergency crews made more than 1,200 high-water rescues, many residents had to evacuate to shelters, and for those who were able to shelter in place, 123,000 homes had no power at the height of the flooding. Officials have also expressed concern about two local dams that have been rated “extremely high risk and are at about 80% capacity, but they are not in immediate danger of failing.

As I wrote in Risk Management last year, the city’s rapid urbanization and approach to land development have made it extremely vulnerable to flooding perils because there is little land surface that can absorb water in foul weather. Rivers, bayous and other receptacles for runoff are easily overwhelmed and take a considerable amount of time to return to normal levels, making the heavy, concentrated, sustained rainfall seen this week even more dangerous in such an urbanized setting. Last May, record rainfall and severe thunderstorms caused tremendous damage across Texas and Oklahoma, killing 32 people and flooding more than 5,000 homes in the metro regions of Houston, Austin and Dallas.

With this latest storm, Houston again offers a powerful reminder about the natural catastrophe perils compounded by urbanization and the need to prepare, both in the form of routine disaster preparation and urban planning. From the August issue of Risk Management:

The city has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to battle the effects of urbanization. On Buffalo Bayou alone, for example, flood control efforts totaling half a billion dollars in the past decade have included bridge replacements, the addition of detention ponds for runoff, and creation of green spaces that serve as parks in normal weather while offering more land surface that can absorb water in foul weather.

But the investments are not enough. “Houston may be doing things to try to improve…but there’s a long history of pre-existing stuff that is still there,” Walter Peacock, an urban planning professor at Texas A&M and director of the school’s Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center, told Time. “Think about every time you put in a road or a mall and you add concrete—you’ve lost the ability of rain to get into the soil and you’ve lost that permeability. It’s now impermeable, and therefore you get more runoff.”

2015 Extreme Weather Events in Review

From hurricanes to hail to droughts to tornadoes, 2015 was a busy year for extreme weather events. Drought in California continued to worsen, increasing the risk of wildfires. While record rainfall in Texas and Oklahoma alleviated drought, it caused severe flash flooding in Texas. There have been 25 Category 4-5 northern hemisphere tropical cyclones—the most on record to date, breaking the old record of 18 set in 1997 and 2004.

The Insurance Information Institute reported that insured losses from natural disasters in the United States in just the first half of 2015 totaled $12.6 billion—well above the $11.2 billion average in the first halves of 2000 to 2014.

Interstate Restoration provides a look at 2015 weather events:

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Risk Managers’ Role in Addressing Climate Change

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QUEBEC CITY, CANADA—Salutations de la ville de Québec! At the first day of this year’s RIMS Canada Conference, climate change quickly emerged as one of the key challenges facing risk managers—and an area with tremendous potential for risk professionals to effect change.

Government clearly has a role to play, but the slower pace and greater number of obstacles they face lessen some of the possible impact. According to Tim East, director of risk management at the Walt Disney Company, that is where businesses come in. Every one of the Dow 30 companies has created environmental and sustainability initiatives, but only 12% of companies have a C-suite or other top-level executive charged with leading action on this front. The clear trend of embracing corporate responsibility stems from a moral obligation businesses all have, and corporations must take initiative in changing how people think, East said.

Addressing sustainability and other climate change concerns cannot be done in a silo, and efforts must focus on building resilience in all of the assets a business has: facilities, systems and people. Risk managers should be taking a leadership role, using their perspective of corporate objectives and performance to help identify and execute the most impactful change.

Risk professionals can particularly help drive this objective to boost awareness within the organization and in the broader community, while also ensuring the business itself is performing in line with sustainability goals. “Risk managers can help become part of the solution by helping to close the gap between the desires and intentions of our organizations and the performance and impact they have,” East said. “This is part of our moral obligation to reduce our impact on the environment.”

Why should companies act? “Not just because it’s good business—although it is, and not just because it’s profitable—although I think it is, but because it’s the right thing to do in the world and for the communities they serve,” East said.

To maximize the impact of these initiatives, East urges risk managers to set and pursue to reduction targets, otherwise they stand little chance of truly achieving change. Then, he advises they commit to a process of assessing, identifying opportunities, and measuring impact annually.

On the organizational level, changing mindsets extends beyond having employees recycle or monitoring water use. Business continuity planning is a critical task at Disney, East said, and they were always good at crisis management, addressing urgent problems over the course of a couple of days. Now, however, they are devoting more focus to planning for longer events. To that end, the company is working to delink events from their consequences—rather than focusing on discrete emergency situations, it is focusing on how the business will be impacted by the conditions that could stem from any of these specific scenarios, he explained.

Getting started and shifting to a long-term focus seem daunting, and the slow rate of observable change often means adaptation and mitigation are not top of mind for businesses, said Lou Gritzo, vice president of research at FM Global. But risk professionals cannot wait for the next disaster or policy change to prompt a more serious evaluation of exposure and strategy.

Getting started on—or further investing in—mitigation efforts may be best focused on one of the main changes we are already seeing: flooding. Existing data shows a clear increase in flooding, and due to sea level risk and increased rainfall and intensity of rainfall, there will only be more, Gritzo said. To manage this growing risk, he recommends risk managers take four key steps:

  1. Know your flood exposure
  2. Be above the water level, and ensure any new construction is as far above it as possible
  3. Have and exercise a plan for flood emergencies
  4. Keep water out – in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, a number of physical protection measures have been certified and made commercial available to guard against up to a meter of water