Category Archives: Earthquake

Spread the Word on Building Resilience for Vulnerable Communities

It was off to another prestigious London venue last week for the RMS team, to attend the Insurance Post British Insurance Awards at the Royal Albert Hall. In addition to fulfilling lifelong dreams to see Rick Astley perform live, the RMS team was also competing for the Risk and Resilience Award, alongside four other very worthy contenders. And, first presentation of the night, I was delighted to represent RMS to collect this important award.

This award recognized our longstanding charity partner Build Change, who we have worked together with for six years. Both organizations share a mission: to reduce lives lost from disasters by strengthening the built environment in economically deprived areas.

By combining RMS’ risk modeling expertise and institutional support with Build Change’s technical knowledge and grassroots approach, we’ve been able to demonstrate that retrofitting buildings, from homes to schools, in vulnerable neighborhoods across the globe can significantly reduce economic loss and save lives. And one of our many collaborations was an initiative to greatly improve the safety of seismically-vulnerable communities in Colombia.

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The Disappearing Tokyo Risk Audit

Without the ability to measure, how do we know if we are making progress?

In December 2012, in preparation for the renewal of the UN Millennium Development Goals, I wrote a report for the U.K. Government Department for International Development (DFID) advocating that catastrophe models should be used to measure progress in disaster risk reduction. I suggested goals could be set to target a 50 percent reduction in expected casualties and a 20 percent reduction in normalized economic losses, over the period of a decade, based on the output of a catastrophe model.

Two years later, the seven targets agreed at the UN meeting on Disaster Risk Reduction, held on March 14–18, 2015, in Sendai, Japan – were a disappointment. The first two targets for “Disaster Mortality” and “Affected People” would simply compare data from 2020-2030 with 2005-2015. The third target was to “reduce direct disaster economic loss in relation to global GDP by 2030”. Yet we know, especially for casualties – even at a global level, a decade is not enough to define a stable mean. For cities and countries, comparing two decades of data will generate spurious conclusions.

And so, it was a relief to see that only two weeks later, the Japanese and Tokyo city governments announced they had set themselves the challenge of halving earthquake casualties over a decade, measured by modeling a hypothetical event based on the M7 1855 Edo earthquake under Tokyo. I referenced this announcement and quoted it widely in presentations, to highlight that risk modeling had been embraced by the country with the most advanced policies for disaster risk reduction.

Over the last two years, I started searching for some update on this initiative. What kind of progress in risk reduction was being achieved, whether the targets for Tokyo would be met? And I found my original links had all stopped connecting. Perhaps in my enthusiasm I had dreamt it?

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EXPOSURE Magazine: Exploring the World of Risk Management

With the start of the U.S. wildfire season on the horizon, in the latest edition of EXPOSURE – the RMS magazine for risk management professionals, wildfire is our lead story, as we examine whether it now needs to be considered a peak peril. The 2017 and 2018 California wildfires have forced one of the biggest re-evaluations of a natural peril since Hurricane Andrew in 1992, as the industry begins to comprehend the potential loss severities.

The article argues that there are similarities with U.S. wildfire as there was with North Atlantic hurricane in 1992 – catastrophe models were relatively new and had not gained market-wide adoption, and many organizations were not systematically monitoring and limiting large accumulation exposure in high-risk areas. Find out why a rethink is required about how the risk management industry currently analyzes the exposure and the tools it uses.

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Version 18.1 Delivers Updated Views of North Atlantic Hurricane and Asia Earthquake Risk

With the release of version 18.1 on April 22 from RMS, there is plenty to explore, validate and put into production.

Updated Insights on North Atlantic Hurricane Risk

Starting with the RMS North Atlantic Hurricane (NAHU) Models, version 18.1 (v18.1) includes updates to the long-term and medium-term event rates throughout the Atlantic Basin, historical event reconstructions from recent seasons, and hazard and line-of-business specific vulnerability enhancements informed by new data and RMS building research.

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The All-Peril Cat Five

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.

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The Age of Innocence

Professor Ilan Noy holds a unique ”Chair in the Economics of Disasters” at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. He has proposed in a couple of research papers that instead of counting disaster deaths and economic costs, we should report the “expected life-years” lost, not only for human casualties but also for the life-years of work that will be required to repair all the damage to buildings and infrastructure.

The idea is based on the World Health Organization’s Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALYs) lost through disease and injury (WHO 2013). The motivation is to escape from the distortion introduced by measuring the impact of global disasters in dollars, as loss from the richest countries will always dominate this metric. Noy’s proposal converts injuries into life-years lost, based on how long it takes for the injured to return to complete health, while also factoring the degree of permanent disability multiplied by its duration. This is topped up by a “welfare reduction weight” for all those exposed to a disaster. The final component of the index attempts to capture how many years of human endeavor is lost to recovering the buildings and assets destroyed in the disaster.

There is plenty to argue over in terms of how deaths, injury and damage should be combined. In particular, the assumption that additional work to rebuild a city, is the same as a shortened life, seems somewhat reductive.

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New Zealand Earthquake Risk: It’s All in the Details

Across the global risk management community, we are bombarded by new information every day. As risk professionals we have to prioritize how we give our attention to new information. From an RMS perspective, when we release new model insights, we know there is a need to be concise and boil down huge research projects into just the important details. But there is a concern that the top-level results get taken as a uniform value that can be applied across the board, losing vital nuance.

When RMS released its New Zealand Earthquake High-Definition (HD) model in mid-2016, an important message was that the annual average loss (AAL) had increased by 30 percent. The ground-up, all-lines, countrywide AAL increased 30 percent relative to the previous version of the model released in 2007. An increase in loss came as no surprise after the Canterbury Earthquake Sequence of 2010/11 – see our New Zealand earthquake blogs.

The HD model was launched at two industry seminars in Wellington and Auckland and came with online documentation: some 44 pages of Understanding Changes in Results and 114 pages of model methodology, supplementary materials on our RMS OWL client portal and a team of modelers happy to talk about their work.

Faced with this information, one approach is to note that the New Zealand market is very consolidated so industry figures should be useful guides for actual portfolios. Let’s just use the old model and scale it by 30 percent. “She’ll be right”, as they like to say in New Zealand. But with two models being so different, this scaling-up would not make sense. Why are they so different?

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How Will Insurers Be Affected by Changes in New Zealand EQC Coverage Layers?

Around 98 percent of residential homes in New Zealand have earthquake insurance. This remarkable achievement is due to a unique partnership between the New Zealand government Earthquake Commission (EQC) working together with the insurance industry. From its origins in 1945 as the Earthquake and War Damage Commission – renamed as the EQC in 1993, the Commission is supported by an Act of Parliament which sees the Crown as the insurer of first resort for earthquakes in New Zealand. The EQC provides the first layer of coverage for 1.84 million residential properties across the country, with the private market delivering cover over this initial layer.

The EQC administers the New Zealand Natural Disaster Fund (NDF) which receives monies directly passed on by private insurers, from a flat rate levy imposed on all households who purchase a homeowner insurance policy. The EQC is also responsible for investing the fund and ensuring there is adequate reinsurance cover available.

The NDF has supported the country’s homeowners through a series of damaging events since the start of this decade, providing NZ$100,000 (US$67,332) of buildings and NZ$20,000 (US$13,466) of contents cover for each event. Before the Canterbury earthquakes in 2011-12, the NDF had NZ$6.4 billion (US$4.27 billion). By 2018, including payments for the Kaikoura earthquake in 2016, the NDF had just NZ$287 million (US$195 million) left and was perilously close to the NZ$200 million limit where the government is mandated to top up the fund.

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Will California be “Puerto Rico” or “New Orleans”?

It is now exactly a quarter of a century, on January 17, 1994, since the last significant U.S. earthquake disaster. A previously unknown blind thrust ruptured beneath Northridge, in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles. Casualties were fortunately modest (57 deaths) because the Mw6.7 shock happened at 4.30 a.m. local time, but the damage was significant – estimated as at least US$30 billion in 1994 prices, as the fault lay directly underneath the city.

Sooner or later California will experience another Mw6.7-7.5 earthquake disaster, in the highly populated San Francisco Bay Area or under sprawling greater Los Angeles. Year-on-year, while the probability rises, the proportion of the affected population with any previous disaster experience dwindles. When it happens, in all senses of the word – it will be a great shock.

One prediction is inevitable: after the next big Bay Area or LA earthquake, there will be large numbers of uninsured homeowners, landlords and small business owners looking for compensation. Given the high deductible and low take-up rates for earthquake insurance, as much as 90 percent of the residential losses will not be covered by insurance payouts: a far higher percentage than in 1994.

And the question is then, will the Federal Government response match that which followed Hurricane Maria, or can we expect it to be more like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Or to put it another way: will California be “Puerto Rico” or “New Orleans”?

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The Problem of Real and Unreal Tsunamis

Indonesia was beset by disasters in 2018, including two high casualty local tsunamis: in coastal western Sulawesi – impacting the city of Palu, on September 28, and around the Sunda Strait, between Java and Sumatra, on December 22. These events may have appeared unusual, but the great subduction zone tsunamis, like those in the Indian Ocean in 2004 and Japan in 2011, have reset our imagination. Before 2004, forty years had passed without any transoceanic tsunamis. Overall, local tsunamis are more common, presenting many challenges in how they can be anticipated.

The Palu tsunami reminds us how “strike-slip” faults, involving only horizontal displacement can still generate tsunamis, first as a result of vertical displacement at “jogs”, where the fault rupture jumps alignment, as well as from triggered submarine landslides. It seems both factors were important in driving the Sulawesi tsunami that became amplified to more than four meters (13 feet) in the funnel-shaped Palu embayment.

The December 22 Sunda Strait tsunami was caused by a submarine landslide on the erupting Anak Krakatoa volcano and arrived without warning, in the dark of mid-evening. More than 400 people drowned mainly around a series of beach resorts in Banten and Lampung provinces, although water levels in the tsunami only reached a meter or two above sea level. An audience of 200 enjoying a concert at the Tanjung Lesung Beach Resort, staged directly on the beach by Indonesian rock band Seventeen were caught unaware. 29 concertgoers were killed together with four people associated with the band.

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