Category Archives: Resilience

U.S. Wildfire: Mitigation Really Matters

It has been a year since the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history. The Camp Fire burnt some 153,336 acres, starting at Camp Creek Road, two miles from the small community of Concow, Butte County in Northern California. A fire was reported at 6.33 a.m. local time on Thursday, November 8, 2018, and spread to Concow within 30 minutes and by 8 a.m. had moved quickly west to the town of Paradise (pop. ~26,800).

The town was devastated within hours, as embers driven by 50 miles per hour winds created an urban conflagration which saw 80 to 90 percent of the town destroyed. The fire took 15 days to fully contain. Overall, the fire destroyed a total of 18,804 structures, and killed 85 people.

The insurance industry is also still reeling after both last year’s and the previous year’s record-breaking California wildfire seasons with US$23 billion in insured losses. All eyes are on the current events as a quiet early season has morphed into an active late season, as the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County that started on October 23, burnt some 77,758 acres and destroyed 374 structures according to CAL FIRE. The Kincade Fire is now the largest ever wildfire in Sonoma County.

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MyShake: New App Unveiled for California Earthquake Early Warning

As my colleague Mohsen Rahnama reminded us in his recent blog, the last destructive earthquake to strike Northern California was on October 17, 1989. Loma Prieta was a magnitude 6.9 earthquake which resulted in 63 deaths and about four thousand injuries. The epicenter was about ten miles northeast of Santa Cruz, and seismic waves took about 30 seconds to reach San Francisco. But there was no way of communicating any earthquake early warning to residents of the Marina district of San Francisco, which suffered some of the worst damage from shaking and fire outbreak.

On October 17, 2019, the thirtieth anniversary of this earthquake, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services unveiled a smartphone app from the University of California, Berkeley Seismological Lab that will give all Californians the opportunity to receive earthquake early warnings.

Governor Gavin Newsom, who happened to be in the Marina district at the time of the 1989 earthquake, has urged people to download the MyShake app. This app (myshake.berkeley.edu) is available on the Apple App Store and Google Play, and relies on the ShakeAlert earthquake early warning system, developed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

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EXPOSURE Magazine: Looking Ahead to the Next Ten Years

The year 2020 is just months away, and in the latest edition of EXPOSURE — the RMS magazine for risk management professionals, we consider some of the changes that the (re)insurance industry will have undergone in ten years’ time. Mohsen Rahnama, Cihan Biyikoglu and Moe Khosravy from RMS tackle the issues, examining the evolution of risk management, the drivers of technological change, and how all roads lead to a common, collaborative industry platform.

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Hurricane Dorian: Who Takes Responsibility for the Loss of Life?

In late 2005 I was on New Providence Island, Bahamas, producing a map to show which properties around the island were within the storm surge flood zone. The northern islands of the Bahamas had been battered by 19 feet (six meters) of storm surge in 1999 during Hurricane Floyd and flooded again in 2004 Hurricanes’ Frances and Jeanne.  

While wandering around the poorer, south side of Nassau, I came across a single-story building, probably a community center or clinic, with barred windows, on which was written “Hurricane Shelter”. It was sufficiently surprising that I even took (and kept) a photo – see below, for the “Hurricane Shelter” was only two to three feet above sea level. If people gathered at this shelter as a strong hurricane approached, they would be placing themselves in mortal danger from an accompanying storm surge.  

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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 Value of Flood Protection: Quantifying the Benefits of Defenses Along U.K. Rivers

Whenever the U.K. is hit by major flooding, attention quickly turns to the performance of the nation’s flood defenses. Some defenses, such as London’s Thames Barrier, are regularly recognized for their vital role in protecting people and property. The value of other mitigation measures, however, has been frequently challenged, such as when defenses failed to prevent significant flooding in Cumbria during storm Desmond in 2015.

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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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Impact Trek: How to Make Millions of Homes More Resilient

Just over a year ago, I was in Manila for a workshop on the design of PCDIP – the Philippines City Disaster Insurance Pool. Recognizing the Philippines as a country prone to earthquakes, typhoons and frequent flooding, as well as having a rapidly increasing economy, population and building stock, the design of PCDIP was funded by the Asian Development Bank and implemented by a consortium of consultants, led by RMS. The aim: to manage the risk that Philippine cities face from natural catastrophes through the use of parametric risk transfer, to give the cities a rapid source of funding when disaster strikes.

In March, I returned to Manila, alongside a team of both RMS colleagues and our clients on the annual RMS Impact Trek with Build Change – a longstanding RMS partner. RMS works closely with Build Change in promoting, and, crucially, implementing risk-reducing retrofit measures in low-income communities around the globe. This time, the focus of the trip was arguably less on risk transfer (as during my last visit to Manila), and more on risk reduction, because effective risk management must always be a combination of both – reduction and transfer.

Transferring risk from the first to the last dollar (or Philippine Peso…) is never efficient from a financial perspective; not to mention the non-financial benefits risk reduction measures can have on the lives and livelihoods of communities. At the same time, risk also cannot be fully “reduced away” – even after the most ambitious risk reduction measures some residual risk will always remain. And this is where risk transfer can provide vital protection, to ensure (or insure?) that adequate financial means are available in response to the most extreme catastrophe events.

During the Impact Trek, we spent a lot of time with the local Build Change team and some of their key partners – microfinance organizations, local and national government, and, most importantly, homeowners.

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Disaster Risk Reduction: Avoiding the Inevitable

While natural hazards are inevitable, their impact on any given community is not. This is the thrust of the #NoNaturalDisasters campaign.

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.

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Data Drives Dividends

In the four years since the adoption of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the range of stakeholders taking part in the UN’s biennial Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction has broadened significantly. And with good reason.

Reducing disaster risk is a shared responsibility. The resilience gap is too large, too multifaceted and too complex to be closed by one stakeholder group alone.

Coupled with an acknowledgement of the need to shift focus from managing disasters to managing disaster risk, a multidisciplinary approach, leveraging private and public sector expertise, has rightly become central to the narrative.

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