Earlier this year, RMS released its latest medium-term rates (MTR) forecast for the North Atlantic hurricane basin as part of the North Atlantic Hurricane Models Version 18.1 release. Applicable over the 2019-2023 period, the Version 18.1 forecast represents an update from the previous MTR forecast issued in 2017 for the 2017-2021 period, by reflecting hurricane activity from the 2017 and 2018 seasons.
The MTR forecast provides a forward-looking estimate of the expected average annual landfall rate on a five-year horizon. Available alongside the long-term rates (LTRs) – a view of hurricane frequency based on the climatological average for the period from 1900 onwards, MTRs provide an additional perspective on expected hurricane rates on a shorter timescale. This allows RMS to adjust our view of risk according to the observed climate variability, and to combine different scientific theories on the drivers of hurricane variability over time, ultimately providing a view of landfalling hurricane risk that best represents the near-term basin conditions.
The 2019 North Atlantic hurricane season officially got underway on Saturday, June 1, and marked the start of a six-month period that runs right through to November 30. Blatantly ignoring this official start, the North Atlantic has already produced its first named storm of 2019. On May 20, Subtropical Storm Andrea formed over open water in the western Atlantic, several hundred miles south of Bermuda. It was a relatively weak and short-lived storm, lasting for less than a day before dissipating. This is the fifth consecutive year that a storm had formed ahead of the official start date of the hurricane season.
As I shared in a previous blog, storms can form at any time of year, but it is important to remember that there is no historical relationship between the date of the first named storm and the overall seasonal hurricane activity, so the early start to 2019 does not provide us with any clues as to how the season might pan out.
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.
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.
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.
The North Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30 but based on the large exposure the (re)insurance industry has to hurricanes, intrigue about what each season will deliver persists year-round. And with three months to go until the official start of the 2019 season, (re)insurers and catastrophe modelers are actively looking ahead to see what it might deliver.
Although the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) does not issue its annual seasonal activity forecasts before late May, others in the meteorological community do provide early indications of upcoming activity. These started as early as December last year with forecasts and commentary issued by Tropical Storm Risk (TSR) and Colorado State University (CSU). But how skillful are these extended range forecasts and what insight, if any, can we gain from them?
In my recent article in Reactions entitled Why Long-term NFIP Reform is a Must, I looked back at the flood events of 2018 through the lens of the need to reform the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). I made the argument that the NFIP is not effectively covering communities at risk or supporting the development of a private market that support that same goal.
Looking at Hurricane Florence, its impacts exemplify the type of event from which our communities need to recover from by leveraging the NFIP and a more robust private market. Both North Carolina and South Carolina each broke records for the amount of rainfall caused by a tropical cyclone. While the flooding due to storm surge was significant in areas such as New Bern, the majority of the flood damage was driven by that record rainfall in the inland areas.
The areas most impacted had the lowest take-up rates for flood insurance – the take-up rate for NFIP policies is less than two percent in the inland counties of North Carolina and South Carolina, while take-up rates in most coastal counties generally range from 10 to 25 percent. As a result, RMS analysis found that Florence caused US$3 billion to US$6 billion in uninsured losses, or about 4-5 times the losses expected to be incurred by the NFIP.
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”?
As we move full steam in to 2019, it is worth remembering that some good progress was made during 2018 with regards to advancing the private flood insurance market in the U.S. – even though Congress struggled with reform of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).
Here’s five takeaway points from the past year:
1. Extending the Extension: The NFIP saw numerous extensions and a few short lapses. Just before the end of the year, Congress reauthorized the NFIP until May 31, 2019 right before the government shutdown commenced on December 22, 2018. But decisions by FEMA during the last week of the year brought uncertainty to the housing and insurance industry as it dealt with changing guidelines on whether policies could be sold or renewed during the shutdown. Ultimately, the NFIP is still operating, but the back and forth of 2018 did not bolster confidence in the stability of the program and left many asking … will 2019 be the breakthrough year?
2. FEMA Boosts the Private Flood Market: Although Congress struggled to act on the NFIP, FEMA did, with technical changes that came into force on October 1, 2018, to attract new private carriers and help existing carriers who participate in the NFIP “Write Your Own” (WYO) program.
First – removing a “non-compete” clause for carriers operating within WYO, now allows WYO carriers to offer their own private flood coverage as well as NFIP policies, with the condition that these businesses are kept separate. Second – policyholders can now cancel their NFIP policy mid-term, before its expiration date when a policyholder has obtained a duplicate policy. In combination, these steps removed hurdles that were hindering carriers from offering new flood products and making it difficult for consumers to purchase those products from the private market.
I am in Wellington, New Zealand, looking out from a rainy hotel window high over the city, admiring the older wooden houses on the forested slopes. Below there are four to eight story office and retail buildings, a number of which are shrouded in scaffolding, still repairing damage from the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake. The earthquake epicenter was some distance from the city, but the pattern of fault ruptures propelled long period ground shaking into the heart of Wellington.
In 1848, only eight years after the city was founded, a Mw7.5 earthquake on the far side of Cook Strait, shattered the town’s brick buildings. The Lieutenant Governor, Edward Eyre, forgetting his official role as colonial booster, declared the “… town of Wellington is in ruins … Terror and despair reign everywhere. Ships now in port … (are) crowded to excess with colonists abandoning the country.” However, the tremors declined, and the town survived.
Many ordinary houses were rebuilt using wood instead of brick. As a result, they suffered far less damage from a larger and closer Mw8.2 earthquake in 1855, that struck at the end of a two-day public holiday to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of the city’s formation. This ruined all the remaining brick and stone commercial buildings including churches, barracks, the jail, and the colonial hospital. However, the earthquake delivered a tectonic bounty, raising the city by one to two meters (3.2 to 6.5 feet), turning the harbor into new land for development.