Harvey Losses Could Reach $90 Billion

With weeks to go before floodwaters recede in some parts of Texas, Hurricane Harvey—which delivered more than three feet of rain in areas of Houston—has so far caused at least 38 deaths and numerous injuries. Harvey was downgraded to a storm Wednesday night, but tens of thousands of people are still in shelters, some of which are also flooded, fearful of what they will find when they return to their homes.

“Hurricane Harvey has already broken all U.S. records for tropical cyclone-driven extreme rainfall, with observed cumulative amounts of 51 inches,” Michael Young, RMS head of Americas climate risk modeling said in a statement.

Joel N. Myers, founder, president and chairman of AccuWeather declared Hurricane Harvey to be, “The costliest and worst natural disaster in American history. AccuWeather has raised its estimate of the impact to the nation’s gross national product to $190 billion or a full one percent, which exceeds totals of economic impact of Katrina and Sandy combined.”

Damage assessments are climbing, with modeling and analytics firm RMS now estimating that losses incurred by wind, storm surge and inland flooding could be as high as $70 billion-$90 billion. The majority of losses are coming from inland flooding in the Houston metropolitan area, where more than seven million properties top $1.5 trillion in value. RMS said the estimate includes damage to all residential, commercial, industrial and automotive risks in the area, as well as possible inflation from an area-wide demand surge.

According to RMS:

Most losses will be uninsured, given that private flood insurance is limited. However, although the insured losses will remain uncertain for some time they will be significant, as private coverage is not consistent: there are significant variations in how coverage is provided by individual insurers.

Coverage for some of the residential losses has been provided by the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). There are approximately 500,000 NFIP policies that will be affected by Harvey, and the losses to the program will be very significant – potentially the largest event to date. However, NFIP penetration rates are as low as 20% in the Houston area, and thus most of the losses will be uninsured. This will rekindle the public policy debate around this issue.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott estimated that more than $125 billion in federal funding will be required to help the state recover from Hurricane Harvey, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Adding to the area’s woes were two explosions at the Arkema Inc. chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, 20 miles northeast of Houston early on Thursday.

The plant, which produces organic peroxides used in products like kitchen counter tops, polystyrene cups and plates, industrial paints and PVC pipes., was without electric service since Sunday and lost refrigeration when backup generators were flooded. Because the products need to be kept cold to prevent a chemical reaction, workers had moved them from warehouses into diesel-powered refrigerated containers, but those were also flooded.

A sheriff’s deputy was taken to a hospital after inhaling fumes, according to Reuters.

Residents in a 1.5-mile radius of the Arkema plant were evacuated on Tuesday, and water levels there make it too dangerous for workers to assess the situation from the ground, officials added.

Arkema urged people to stay away as the fire burns out. Black smoke was billowing from the site, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said at a televised news briefing.

The Federal Aviation Administration said Wednesday it had temporarily barred flights from the area because of the risk of fire or explosion.

Midwest Tornado Insured Losses Could Top $1B

A series of tornadoes in the Midwest on Sunday that killed six, levelled homes and businesses and left tens of thousands without power may top $1 billion in insured losses, according to risk modeller RMS.

The New York Times reported that on Nov. 18, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn declared seven counties disaster areas and said he would seek relief funding from state and federal agencies. He also said the series of tornadoes were the deadliest to occur in the state in November.

Matthew Nielsen, director of model product management at RMS said in an email that while damage estimates are far from final, “There is a good chance that Sunday’s outbreak will likely rank as one of the top five most significant November outbreaks since 1950.”

The magnitude and severity of the tornado outbreak was driven by two factors, he said, “Unseasonably strong thermodynamic instability and unusually strong wind shear throughout the depth of the atmosphere.”

Robert P. Hartwig, Ph.D., president of the Insurance Information Institute said from the Chicago airport, en route to assess the tornado damage first hand, that there is “No question that it will at least be the second costliest tornado event of the year.” The largest event this year was the Moore, Okla., tornadoes, which approached $1.6 billion in insured losses. By comparison, damage from the Midwest tornadoes is spread over a wider area, impacting Illinois, Michigan and Indiana.

“There are thousands of damaged structures throughout the states that were hit—residential and commercial,” he said. “What’s difficult to tell at this point is the extent of commercial damage and that can really drive up the losses. Not only are commercial structures more expensive, but there is often a business interruption component as well.”

He explained that insured losses for tornadoes are typically higher than those for floods. Because there was no flooding involved, more of the losses would be covered by insurance, meaning a faster recovery. “The vast majority of property owners here are going to have insurance coverage. Uninsured losses may include some business interruption loss, vehicles that didn’t carry comprehensive coverage and uninsured structures,” he said.

As is generally the case after tornadoes, “Most people will be getting checks [from their insurers] very quickly, which will help them with temporary living expenses. It will also help them make initial repairs more quickly and provide funds for debris removal so that rebuilding can start,” Hartwig said.

7 Potential Disasters Worse than the BP Spill

If forecasters were attempting to gauge the worst disasters that could happen, a major oil spill gushing for some 90-plus days into the Gulf of Mexico would probably have rated fairly high. By some estimates, this whole mess will cost BP around $60 billion. (Other, more conservative estimates have it costing closer to 1/10th that number.)

But while this might seem like the one of the worst things that possibly could happen on American soil, it isn’t. Forbes, in its latest issue, has a list of seven other incidents that could be even more catastrophic. Here’s a recap of their list.

nuclear plant

1. Nuclear Meltdown

Depending on the severity and location, a disaster at a major plant could wreak unfathomable carnage. Writes Forbes:

The industry has $19 billion set aside to pay for accidents. But what would a Chernobyl-type release of radioactive gases into the air do to death rates and the habitability of some large area? The Institute for Policy Studies says a spent-fuel fire could cost hundreds of billions of dollars.

While nuclear energy very may well be a good option in a country (rhetorically) trying to slow climate change and wean itself off of foreign oil, the possibility of a meltdown can be sobering — even when you realize that it has thus far been very effective and safe in some parts of the world for the past several decades.


2. Liquefied Natural Gas Explosion

With supertankers out there carrying some 100,000 tons of liquid methane, the explosive potential of a single ship is equivalent to the blast that would occur if two billion sticks of dynamite went off. The last major tanker explosion killed 128 people in Cleveland in 1944. The next one? Well, it would likely be much, much worse.

And anyone who has seen the controversial — and terrifying — documentary Gasland knows that there may be other, more subtle risks involved in natural gas extraction that deserve the attention of regulators and the industry.

Bhopal Union Carbide

3. Chemical Plant Explosion

The Bhopal disaster was the worst industrial accident in history. Recently — and very controversially — seven involved officials were sentenced to two years in prison and fined $2,000 for negligence more than 25 years after the 1984 Union Carbide leak of poisonous gases (mostly methyl isocyanate) that killed some 15,000 people directly (and up to 23,000 by some estimates) while also leaving another 500,000 with injuries and ailments related to exposure. Human rights groups, victims and Bhopal locals were outraged at the leniency given, particularly since proper clean-up efforts were never conducted and that the $470 million settlement paid by Union Carbide in 1989 now looks laughable by any standard.

If something like that were to occur today, it’s almost impossible to predict how much such a politically charged incident with so many casualties would end up costing. But Forbes lists a hypothetical plant explosion in Houston that kills 600 people as totaling $20 billion, according to Risk Management Solutions.

hoover dam

4. Dam Failure

I have never done any research into a major dam failure, but it sure doesn’t sound good at all.

One of the worst scenarios would be a cascading series of failures in the Columbia River Basin of the Pacific Northwest, where the dams start in Canada, pass the Department of Energy’s Hanford Reservation, with its 50 million gallons of plutonium-laced waste, and include the 6.8-gigawatt Grand Coulee Dam, the largest hydroelectric plant in the U.S. The odds of such a catastrophe are extremely low, but the costs would quickly exceed the $85 billion tab for cleaning up Hanford.

Hopefully, someone is looking into lowering the threat for all “one-third of the 80,000” U.S. dams that FEMA claims pose at least a “high” risk.

long island express 1938

5. Category 5 Hurricane Hits New York

A few years ago, I wrote an in-depth feature article for Risk Management about the hurricane potential for New York. Honestly, I’m not really sure a cat 5 hitting NYC is even close to likely over, say, the next 100 years or so, even if ocean sea-surface temperatures continue to rise to alarming extents. But a category 3 storm hitting the area is not only likely — it’s inevitable.

In 1938, the “Long Island Express” raced up the Atlantic coast at a breakneck pace, inundating Long Island, Connecticut and, particularly, Providence, Rhode Island, with floodwaters and storm surge that, while devastating even back then when the areas were sparsely developed, would lead to well over a $100 billion in losses today. The loss of life in this densely populated, frightening unprepared region could be even worse.

Here’s an excerpt from the piece I wrote about “The Northeast Unthinkable”:

Given its geography, population density and general affluence, New York’s Long Island in particular faces a tremendous risk. When the Long Island Express hit in 1938, it was eastern Suffolk County that endured the greatest winds, storm surge and flooding, resulting in approximately 50 deaths. According to 1940 census data, the population at the time was just under 200,000. Today, nearly 1.5 million people live in Suffolk. And another 1.34 million reside in the neighboring Nassau County compared to the roughly 400,000 there in 1938.

“What really drives significant catastrophe losses is a major event hitting a major metropolitan area,” says Clark. “Otherwise, you can have a lot of activity, but you’re not going to have a lot of losses. It’s those chance occurrences where you have major events hit Galveston, Houston, New Orleans, Tampa, Miami, the Mid-Atlantic or the Northeast—those are the real areas where you’re going to get the mega-catastrophes.”

According to a study by AIR, there is some $4.4 trillion worth of commercial exposure and $3.4 trillion in residential property from New Jersey to Maine. And with almost a million households in Long Island alone, this 1,200-square-mile strip of land accounts for over $1 trillion in combined commercial and residential exposure.

It is with this boom in population and wealth in mind that Roger Pielke, Jr., director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at Colorado State University, set out to formulate new projections for the scale of destruction a replay of the Great New England Hurricane would cause now.

In today’s dollars, the 1938 storm caused over $4 billion in insured losses alone. But this adjusted figure only accounts for the elevated currency values and ignores 68 years of regional growth in population, infrastructure, industry and commercial enterprise. “You can’t adjust for the damages that never occurred,” says Pielke.

As someone who lives in New York, this — even more so than terrorism — is the possible disaster that disturbs me the most, in part, because I believe there is actually some sort of official developed to react to the next terrorist attack. I doubt there is any comprehensive, inter-county plan at all that will be effective in the days leading up to an following the category 3 hurricane that will someday hit.

sydney opera house

6. Ferry Capsizing

This one honestly sounds less plausible as a “worse than BP disaster” for the United States than it does elsewhere, but here’s what Forbes wrote:

Ferryboats and riverboats are extremely stable because of their wide, flat design, but they also often travel in dangerous waterways with lots of passengers. As many as 4,300 passengers and crew died after the Philippine ferry MV Dona Paz collided with a tanker, caught fire and sank in 1987.

I suppose that could happen anywhere, but it seems less likely than the others listed in the developed world — especially when compared to this last, but certainly not least, one…


7. Supervolcano

Forbes quotes a Lloyd’s report that volcanoes pose an $85 billion risk “including disruption and air travel” and includes Mount Vesuvius in Italy and Mount Rainier outside of Seattle as two of the scariest locations for a major eruption.

$85 billion sure is a lot of money, but anyone who has seen the History Channel’s “Mega Disasters” episode on what will happen when the Yellowstone Caldera blows probably has worse fears on their minds. Were this thing to erupt, the only adjusters and insurers left to tally the total will likely be roaches and reptiles.

You’ve been warned.

Risk Management Links of the Day … Featuring Security Dogs on Vacation

security dog philadelphia airport

  • Three bomb-sniffing dogs at the Philly International airport failed their recertification tests and have been relieved of duty. While laying off security dogs may sound like overkill, even in the new climate of airline security sensitivity, one expert notes that “these dogs are not ornamental. They are there for a purpose. If the purpose is not being satisfied, that’s a serious issue.” There is a “built-in redundancy” at the airport so other screening methods can be used in the meantime until new dogs can be brought in. As for the dogs who failed … Do they just get to go on vacation and relax playing billiards like the pup above? Nope. It’s back to school for them: “TSA spokesman Greg Soule said the agency could not comment on the status of its dogs. He said, however, that the rigorous nature of yearly certification tests means that some of the nation’s 700 TSA-led dog teams deployed in air, marine and mass transportation systems may not pass and must go through a remedial program.”
  • A scary-to-think-about report was released today from the Sector Risk Research Programme stating that risks that are poorly understood and thus not addressed properly by the commercial insurance sector could “prompt a new phase of the financial crisis.” More specifically, the report states: “Parallels can be drawn between large property and casualty insurance institutions today lacking the ability to fully understand changing risk exposures and more publicised past failures of financial institutions to understand risks assumed. While loss impacts naturally lag economic changes by several years, turmoil in commercial insurance is expected as a latter phase of the financial crisis.” Jeez. Let’s hope not. (via Risk & Insurance)
  • The 4th quarter of 2009 set a record for cat bond issuance volume. “More companies have put their toes back in the water after a slow start in 2009,” said Robert Stone, director with the RMS dedicated ILS team, RiskMarkets.
  • This is a little dated at this point, but I read it over my holiday break and was just reminded how much I enjoyed Vanity Fair‘s extensive look at Goldman Sachs. The article breaks down the disconnect between “the way Goldman Sachs sees itself (they’re the smartest) and the way everyone else sees Goldman (they’re the smartest, greediest, and most dangerous).” It seems like the further we get away from September 15, 2008, the more interesting the stories become about what actually happened between Wall Street and Washington during the market meltdown, and Bethany Mclean of Vanity Fair peels back a few more revealing layers of the onion here. They also devised this sweet chart illustrating that “Goldman’s influence is ubiquitous in the highest echelons of global political power.” That sure is a ton of former Goldman employees in a ton of the world’s most influential financial positions.
  • Speaking of political power over the financial system … David Leonhardt is asking “If the Fed Missed This Bubble, Will It See a New One?” in the New York Times. “The fact that Mr. Bernanke and other regulators still have not explained why they failed to recognize the last bubble is the weakest link in the Fed’s push for more power. It raises the question: Why should Congress, or anyone else, have faith that future Fed officials will recognize the next bubble?” Fair question, it would seem.

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