This time last year, we were in the thick of a series of Atlantic hurricanes that caught the world’s attention with images of significant damage and destruction. Fast forward to 2018 and it seems that Japan is bearing the brunt of natural catastrophes this summer, with a series of typhoons, floods, and earthquakes dominating global headlines.
The latest headline maker is Super Typhoon Jebi, the fifth typhoon to impact Japan this year and billed by many media outlets as Japan’s most powerful storm in 25 years. The country’s five typhoons are just one symptom of an overall active Pacific basin, alongside a record-setting pace of tropical development in the northeast Pacific. Some outlets tie this increased Pacific activity to an El Niño phase of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), which conversely has repressed Atlantic hurricane activity to date.
Super Typhoon Jebi made its first landfall as a Category 3 equivalent hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale (SSHWS), on Tuesday, September 4 as it crossed the southern area of Tokushima Prefecture at around 0300 UTC. Heading east-north-east, Jebi then made the short 40-mile (64 kilometer) trip across the Kiisuido Strait into Osaka Bay to make landfall again at 0600 UTC, close to Wakayama and into the densely populated Kansai urban area which includes cities such as Kobe (1.5 million residents), Osaka (2.6 million residents) and Kyoto (1.47 million residents). Evacuation orders were issued for parts of Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Hyogo, Kagawa, Ehime, and Wakayama prefectures, and at the peak of the storm, advisories were issued for over 1.2 million people. 16,000 people currently remain in shelters across 20 prefectures.
Early reports suggest direct damage was mainly caused by wind and surge, with no major inland flood or landslide being reported. The Fire and Disaster Management Agency (FDMA) reported a total of 1,138 buildings damaged across 32 prefectures, including four prefectures each with 50 or more buildings damaged. As of Wednesday, September 5, the worst-hit prefectures included Kyoto, Osaka, Hokkaido, and Gifu.
Although it would seem that 2018 has been particularly harsh, Japan is a country that experiences natural catastrophes such as typhoons and earthquakes more frequently than others. This experience lends itself to strong building codes and resilient engineering practices across a majority of the country. Even in the face of such resilience, RMS anticipates that Jebi will prove to have a measurable impact on the global insurance industry, potentially in line with this summer’s widespread floods.
Reports show buildings and some tall-structures having their roofs torn off, several construction cranes have been tipped over and scaffolding has been ripped off several multi-story buildings. The storm has resulted in at least nine fatalities, with a further 400 people injured. Local media reports that the majority of injuries were caused by high winds. A warehouse in Shiga Prefecture collapsed in high winds, killing one person. High winds ripped away part of the roof of Kyoto Station, with several people injured when glass paneling from the ceiling fell into the atrium of the station. The Tokaido Shinkansen and Sanyo Shinkansen lines have also been temporarily suspended.
On the Meishin Expressway in Shiga Prefecture, a number of trucks were reported to have been tipped over by high winds, and in the city of Nishinomiya, in Hyogo Prefecture, with nearly half a million residents, local media reports that storm surge carried boats into the streets. In addition, more than 100 cars caught fire after waves inundated a yard owned by a local car auctioneer.
Airports took a pounding. At Kansai International Airport which serves the greater Osaka region, and is located on an artificial island, the airport saw the runway aprons, planes and terminal buildings flooded by storm surge. Adding to the problems at the airport, a tanker that had been anchored in Osaka Bay drifted out and caused significant damage to a two-mile long bridge which acts as the sole connection from the airport to the city of Izumisano (pop. ~101,000), Osaka Prefecture, as the tanker broke free and smashed into the bridge. Around 800 domestic and international flights have so far been cancelled, affecting nearly 60,000 people, and of these, All Nippon Airways (ANA). and Japan Airlines (JAL). have cancelled 309 and 264 flights, respectively. Local media reports that the airport will be closed indefinitely due to the damage that it has sustained.
Some of the biggest losses could result from the damage to Kobe and Osaka ports. Even though storm surge flooded the Kobe and Osaka port areas with around two to three meters of flood water, serious building damage has not been reported, but marine cargo damage could be substantial. One local insurer commented that cargo damages are reported in Kobe port and air cargo in Kansai airport.
Despite the physical damage, local government, the Port Authority, railway, transport and essential services were well prepared for this event, and it was well within the assumptions of their established business continuity plans.
Major railway companies had announced the almost total suspension of their operations from early on Tuesday, September 4. As a consequence, workers stayed at home, and major industries and companies, including Toyota, Honda, Kyocera, Murata and Suntory, who had anticipated this event, suspended their operations.
Those hoping that Super Typhoon Jebi would be Japan’s final natural catastrophe this year would almost immediately be let down, as a Mw6.6 earthquake struck the northern island of Hokkaido on September 5. However, as a testament to the country’s strong building practices, the effect of this seemingly continuous streak of events on the global insurance industry is expected to be relatively minor. However, when all is said and done, it is likely that Jebi will prove to be one of the year’s most notable events.