Last weekend (April 13-14) marked the first major U.S. severe convective storm (SCS) outbreak of 2019. Drawing energy from warm, humid air brought over land from the Gulf of Mexico by a dip in the jet stream, hail, strong winds and/or tornadoes were reported in 19 states stretching from Texas to New York. There have been at least nine fatalities reported. The worst damage occurred in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, where over 150,000 homes and business lost power.
Damage surveys are ongoing, but as of April 16, there had been 22 tornadoes confirmed by the National Weather Service, including two EF-3 rated tornadoes in Texas, with estimated wind speeds of 140 miles per hour (225 kilometers per hour). Early assessments indicate that several hundred buildings have been damaged or destroyed, but the total number will unlikely be known for a few more days at least – and could be significantly higher. In the meantime, insurers will be sending out loss adjusters to try to establish the scale of the claims they are likely to incur. The final cost may not be known for several months.
But why is spring and not summer the peak season for SCS, what is the current state of SCS risk – and what has its impact been on the insurance industry over the past few years?
There’s a truth behind the hashtag. Modern societies are increasingly capable of determining their resilience to natural hazards. We nowadays know enough to prevent extreme weather events from escalating into full-blown disasters. In developed nations, sophisticated forecasting systems, social media networks and engineering capabilities can make any weather-related death seem like pure bad luck.
So, if it’s all down to chance, no particular group in society should be at higher risk. The truth, however, is rather different.
Still ranked within the top three largest insured loss events in Australia’s history, it has now been twenty years since a hailstorm shattered roofs across the eastern suburbs of Sydney on April 14, 1999. And recent events continue to show the significant risk posed by severe hailstorms – on December 20, 2018, Sydney was hit by “…the worst hailstorm in twenty years” according to the Australia Bureau of Meteorology. On the anniversary of the 1999 storm, we look at both these events and discuss the return period of significant hail losses in Sydney.
For the 1999 event, the large hail associated with the storm damaged 24,000 homes and 70,000 automobiles along its path. There has been much written about the 1999 event, and in 2009 RMS published a detailed 10-year retrospective, but in short, this storm was unusual for several reasons:
April 14 was outside of the normal storm season which tends to focus around September through to March
The storm had hit late in the day, at 8 p.m. local time; most hit during the mid to late afternoon
The size of the hailstones was very large, described at the time as “… cricket-ball, melon, or grapefruit sized…” and up to 12 centimeters (4.7 inches) wide.
Why the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Intensity Scale had five levels we don’t know. The digits on a hand? Better than three, but lower resolution than the dozen rungs for wind speeds or earthquake intensity? Whatever the reason it seems to work.
In the late 1960s, Herbert Saffir, a Florida building engineer, was sent by the United Nations to study the hurricane vulnerability of low-cost housing in the Caribbean. He realized something was needed to rank hurricane destructiveness. Saffir had some “Richter envy” from observing the ease with which seismologists now communicated with the public. In 1971, he contacted Robert Simpson, head of the National Hurricane Center to help link damage levels with wind speeds.
Seeing the opportunity to communicate evacuation warnings, Simpson also added details around the height of advancing storm surges. Better information was clearly needed, after the loss of life in Hurricane Camille on the Mississippi coast in 1969.
RMS recently participated in a cyber model comparison exercise at the Cat Risk Management and Modellingconference in London. These types of comparison for natural catastrophe models have been performed at several conferences during the last decade, but this was the first time that losses from multiple cyber models had been compared in this way. The assessment included established cyber model firms such as RMS and Guidewire, as well start-ups including Corax, Kovrr and CyberCube.
This comparison exercise clearly demonstrated that the cyber modeling industry has not reached a consensus on the likelihood and impact of extreme cyber catastrophes. The comparison was run against a small number of accounts – looking at a total of 46 U.S. companies across a range of industry sectors.
On Monday, March 18, 2019, Norsk Hydro, one of the world’s largest aluminum producers, announced the replacement of its CEO, who had left the company through early retirement. This followed admissions that the company was responsible for a massive environmental spillage of bauxite residues at its plants in north-eastern Brazil in February 2018. As a result, a government-imposed shutdown of some of Norsk Hydro’s operations had seen aluminum production at its Alunorte refinery cut to just 50 percent of its capacity.
Late that same evening, the company’s IT team became alerted of a major cyberattack. At a press conference the following morning, it was the CFO rather than CEO who disclosed that IT systems in most Norsk Hydro business areas were impacted, including the digital systems at its smelting plants. Apart from switching to manual operations at its smelting plants, several metal extrusion plants had to be shut down. Acting resiliently to avoid infection from one plant to another, Norsk Hydro quickly isolated its plants.