Flurry-Down Economics: The Real Cost of Blizzards

Winter Storm Juno New York City

Despite predictions of a “historic” snowstorm this week, the Northeast – and the insurance industry – largely dodged the blizzard bullet. Over the past 20 years, winter storms have caused an average of $1.2 billion in insurable losses every year, the Insurance Information Institute reported. Last year’s polar vortex and significant snow accumulations came with a price tag between $15 and $50 billion, and winter weather caused $3.7 billion in overall losses, of which an estimated $2.3 billion was insured, according to MunichRe.

NATURAL DISASTER LOSSES IN THE UNITED STATES, 2014

Ahead of what could have been record snow, seven states preemptively declared a state of emergency for what some dubbed Winter Storm Juno. Authorities shut down many major cities, canceling thousands of flights and closing major roads and mass transit systems. Though Boston was pummeled by about two feet of snow, New York City and most of the region emerged relatively unscathed.

“We think the economic impact of the storm is going to be relatively small,” said Evan Gold, senior vice president at weather advisory firm Planalytics. “We’re estimating at about $500 million, and that’s simply based on the duration of the storm, the timing of the storm and the population centers that are impacted.”

Others estimate the cost may be closer to $1 billion, considering the lost business, wages and taxes, and snow removal costs. According to a new report from City Comptroller Scott Stringer, in the past 12 years, every inch of snow cost New York City an average of $1.8 million to remove. From 2003 through 2014, the city spent $663.2 million just to clear the snow. Lighter snowfall actually takes a greater toll per-inch. “It’s a lot more expensive on a per-inch basis when we get a little snow because we have startup costs and we have fixed costs. We have to have plows and salt,” Stringer said. As a result, the city saw 55.5 inches of snow in 2003 and paid $740,000 per inch in cleanup costs, while the city had 6.8 inches of snow in 2012 and paid $4.4 million per inch.

In a press conference on Tuesday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo shrugged off the financial implications of preparations for and recovery from Juno, calling it one of the “costs of doing business.” He explained, “We factor that in—things like snow removal, salt purchases, overtime for crew to handle storms, these are factored in the budget and this was not exceptional to that process.”

The cost of overpreparation is hefty, however, and it primarily falls upon the public. A one-day storm in Massachusetts costs the state economy about $265 million, while the total cost in New York is around $700 million, according to the Boston Globe. A significant portion of that is due to lost wages for hourly workers, who tend to be hit the worst by snow-related shutdowns.

Travel cancellations have a similar impact. According to research firm masFlight, it costs an airline about $6,000 to cancel a typical domestic flight on a full-size jet, but the total tab for all the passengers who were supposed to be on board is about $58,000, due to the additional costs of lodging and meals. More than 4,700 flights were cancelled Tuesday after about 2,800 on Monday ahead of the storm, CNN reported. Amtrak also suspended service between New York and Boston because of the weather.

Insurance Industry ‘Disappointed’ by Senate’s Non-Renewal of TRIA

Last week’s optimism about the possible reauthorization of the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act was replaced by “disappointment” today, as the insurance industry sounded off about the Senate’s failure to pass the House-approved TRIA bill before adjourning. TRIA, the federal insurance backstop that requires insurers to offer terrorism insurance coverage to policyholders, is set to expire on Dec. 31, 2014. More than 60 percent of all U.S. businesses purchase terrorism insurance coverage, according to Marsh USA.

“A major terrorist attack occurring without a TRIA law on the books will be far more disruptive to the U.S. economy than one where TRIA is in place,” Robert Hartwig, Ph.D., president of the Insurance Information Institute and economist said in a statement. “Terrorism insurance policies are going to lapse in 2015, and insurers will be under no obligation to renew them, adversely impacting the construction, energy and real estate industries, among others. For instance, a theatre owner hosting a controversial movie premiere on Christmas Day may have insurance coverage for losses triggered by an act of terrorism but this same business might not have it if a comparable attack were to occur on New Year’s Day.”

The Coalition to Insure Against Terrorism (CIAT) spokesperson Marty DePoy said, “CIAT is incredibly disappointed that the Senate chose to adjourn without reauthorizing the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act, a program that since 9/11 has provided critical stability to the marketplace against another terrorist attack. This is a bipartisan failure; the 113th Congress has let down American workers, American businesses and jeopardized U.S. economic and national security. CIAT urges the new Congress to make TRIA reauthorization its top priority in January and immediately vote to extend the program for the long-term.”

RIMS President Carolyn Snow echoed disappointment. “We are extremely disappointed that Congress failed to pass an extension of TRIA, despite strong bipartisan support. The program’s expiration will have many negative repercussions for commercial insurance consumers, the countless organizations they represent and the U.S. economy as a whole.”

She noted that since its inception, “TRIA has stabilized the marketplace by providing adequate capacity at affordable rates. Its expiration will almost certainly cause rates to rise, placing many lending agreements in jeopardy and forcing some organizations to self-insure or simply go without.”

Leigh Ann Pusey, president and CEO of the American Insurance Association (AIA), said AIA is “incredibly disappointed,” adding that by letting TRIA lapse, “Congress has failed to protect taxpayers and the economy.”

She said, “Without TRIA in place on Jan. 1, insurers will be forced to assess their exposures. The program’s lapse will significantly jeopardize the terrorism insurance marketplace that currently protects our nation’s economy against major acts of terrorism. We strongly urge the new Congress to take up the House-Senate negotiated TRIA reauthorization package as its first item of business when it returns in January in order to minimize marketplace disruptions.”

Global risk advisor, Willis expressed disappointment as well, noting that its biggest concern is that Clients “will need help in reevaluating their risk exposures according to the changed environment where TRIA is no longer available as a back stop for the insurance market place. Of particular concern is where clients have loan covenants that determine the type and amount of terrorism insurance coverage that is required.”

Mike Becker, executive vice president and chief executive officer of the National Association of Professional Insurance Agents observed, “Disagreement won the day and politics took precedence over protecting the American people. There was overwhelming bipartisan support to renew TRIA, with both parties showing strong leadership to get a compromise deal done in recent weeks. That support was nearly unanimous, with the House approving the TRIA renewal deal 417-7 last week, and the Senate having already passed a similar version 93-4 last July.”

Snow concluded, “RIMS and many other organizations have been pushing Congress to pass an extension for the past two years but Congress senselessly ignored those concerns and waited until the very last moment. This delay has ultimately led to the worst possible outcome.”

Winter Weather Third-Largest Cause of Cat Losses

Winter Snow Storm

Weather damage never goes out of season. According to a new report from the Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.), winter storms are historically the third-largest cause of catastrophe losses, behind only hurricanes and tornadoes.

“Winter storms accounted for 7.1 percent of all insured catastrophe losses between 1993 and 2012, placing it third behind hurricanes and tropical storms (40 percent) and tornadoes (36 percent) as the costliest natural disasters,” said I.I.I. President Robert Hartwig.

Insured Catastrophe Losses

Between 1993 and 2012, winter storms resulted in about $27.8 billion in insured losses—or $1.4 billion per year, on average, according to Property Claims Service for Verisk Insurance Solutions.

A December ice storm in North Texas left at least $30 million in residential insured losses in its wake, the Insurance Council of Texas reported. This figure does not include estimated damage to vehicles or government property, nor does it take into account the significant municipal expense of safety or cleanup measures. Dallas County alone spent $300,000 to $400,000 just to battle slick roads, according to conservative estimates from County Judge Clay Jenkins. He told Insurance Journal that, while sanding and salting roads constituted some of the county’s greatest efforts, the biggest cost came from closing offices, including the court system. Weather-related shutdown resulted in lost productivity of about $1.5 million, he said.

Nation-wide, December weather caused total economic and insured losses estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars and claimed 29 lives, Aon Benfield reported.

But 2013 should have made some fair-weather friends in the insurance industry. Last year, according to Munich Re, direct overall losses caused by global disasters amounted to around $125 billion and insured losses of around $31 billion. While exceptionally costly, these were below the 10-year averages of $184 billion and $56 billion, respectively.