Black Swan: Tsunami

Menace on the Horizon

The Pacific Northwest will never fully recover from this tsunami and earthquake.
By: | August 3, 2016 • 8 min read

Scenario:  Fifteen to 20 minutes.

That’s all the time that tens of thousands of coastal residents and tourists will have to escape with their lives when the Cascadia Subduction Fault ruptures. It could happen tomorrow. Or in 50 years. No one is totally sure, since there is no way to predict when earthquakes occur.

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But when the 700-mile-long fault in the Pacific Ocean that stretches just 70 miles offshore from Cape Mendocino, Calif., to Vancouver Island, British Columbia, last erupted in 1700, the earthquake-powered tsunami was so powerful it drowned a forest of 150-foot-tall spruce trees on the Oregon Coast and swamped a feudal castle in Japan.

This time, the loss of life and infrastructure damage will be worse because so many more people live in the Pacific Northwest and there is so much more to destroy.

Large sections of the coastline will drop by nearly 5 feet, and the shaking caused by the magnitude 9 earthquake will last as long as five minutes, affecting 140,000 square miles, including Seattle, Tacoma, Portland and Olympia. Aftershocks will continue for months.

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The first tsunami wave — as high as 30 to 40 feet — will bury the coastal communities in unrelenting towers of water moving about 20 mph toward the shore, and as fast as 500 mph across the ocean. About 100,000 people live and work there, but the population grows by tens of thousands during tourist season.

Roads, bridges, railways and communication structures will be destroyed. Natural gas pipelines and water systems will be heavily damaged. There will be widespread, lengthy power outages in every city within 100 miles of the coast. Undersea transpacific cables will be severed.

Fatalities will total upwards of 13,000 — many more if the tsunami occurs during a weekend beach day in tourist season.

The coastline and low-lying areas of towns west of I-5, the main interstate on the West Coast, will be wiped out from Northern California to British Columbia. Higher ground will suffer moderate to severe damage.

Wood-frame buildings should withstand the earthquake, but not the tsunami. Masonry buildings may withstand the tsunami, but not the earthquake.

Fatalities will total upwards of 13,000 — many more if the tsunami occurs during a weekend beach day in tourist season.

The region never fully recovers.

Analysis:  Total global economic losses from natural and man-made disasters in 2015 were $92 billion, according to Swiss Re. When the Cascadia Subduction Fault ruptures, that alone will be higher.

Official projections put the economic damage at $49 billion for Washington, $41 billion for British Columbia, $32 billion for Oregon and $4 billion for California, but many experts believe losses will be higher. Maybe 20 percent to 25 percent of economic losses will be insured, experts said.

Residents and small business owners usually do not have flood or earthquake protection. And standard policies for small businesses have limited coverage for business interruption, or extra expenses required to rebuild and recover.

“The basis for the panic is pretty solid. It’s not a tinfoil-hat kind of thing. We are way past the minimum from geologic records, but we are not in any sense, overdue.” — Dr. Chris Goldfinger, director, active tectonics and seafloor mapping laboratory at Oregon State University

National or regional companies may see higher payouts. As sophisticated insurance buyers, they will have higher limits for business interruption, contingent business interruption and for extra expenses. But the damage will take months and years to fix. No business can outlast that. Not if they remain in the area.

Homes and businesses on the coast will be destroyed. Plus, the entire coastline will be isolated by the tsunami’s devastation, cut off from the rest of the country.

In the bigger cities, such as Portland, Eugene and Seattle, many properties will be destroyed by the earthquake. Residents and business owners will face at least a month without electricity, several months without water, and years before bridges and major infrastructure are restored. And those are the optimistic projections.

Oregon businesses were stunned to hear it would take months and years to resume operations, said Dr. Chris Goldfinger, director, active tectonics and seafloor mapping laboratory at Oregon State University, who has been charting the frequency and severity of the zone ruptures.

“They said after a few weeks, we would have to leave,” he said. “We can’t just sit here and wait for years for bridges to be rebuilt. That was a sobering moment.”

Everyone Has a Stake

The average time between earthquakes is 400 to 500 years, Goldfinger said. It can be as short as 200 years, as long as 1,000. It’s now 315 years since the last rupture of the Cascadia Subduction Fault.

“The basis for the panic is pretty solid. It’s not a tinfoil-hat kind of thing. We are way past the minimum from geologic records, but we are not in any sense, overdue,” Goldfinger said.

“Everyone has a stake in it,” he said. “We all have a responsibility to do something.” — Jay Wilson, Clackamas County (Oregon) resilience coordinator

With bridges, highways and communication down, emergency response will be limited. Rescue efforts will have to come from outside the affected areas.

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“The people we count on the most for smaller disasters and misadventures will be victims like the rest of us,” said Goldfinger.

Like many others in the Pacific Northwest, Jay Wilson, Clackamas County (Oregon) resilience coordinator, is working to reduce the number of victims. It’s a very site-specific exercise and an overwhelming task.

“Everyone has a stake in it,” he said. “We all have a responsibility to do something.”

“A Massive Planning Effort”

To aid tsunami survivors, the construction of about 43 “vertical evacuation structures” in coastal Washington have been discussed.

Nathan Wood, research geographer, U.S. Geological Survey

Nathan Wood, research geographer, U.S. Geological Survey

The first one — a refuge on the roof above Ocosta Elementary School in Westport, Wash., will be finished soon. It will hold 700 people. A planned berm — basically a big hill — behind  an elementary School in Long Beach, Wash., will save about 600 more.

Officials and community members are also caching relief supplies on high ground near the tsunami zone so survivors will have provisions while they await rescue, said Nathan Wood, research geographer, U.S. Geological Survey.

“It’s a massive planning effort,” he said, noting that Oregon and Washington emergency managers have involved hundreds of experts, legislators, business leaders and the public in regional resilience planning.

“It will be catastrophic,” Wood said, “but we can make it more resilient. People are not burying their heads in the sand. Can they make everything perfect in one day? No. But it was really impressive how they are pulling everybody together.”

Still, Wilson said, it’s a hugely expensive proposition that will take years, and new buildings and infrastructure are still not being constructed to a higher level of resilience, such as is common in Japan and Chile, or even California, where earthquakes and tsunamis are more common.

“Until the business community starts demanding it and elected officials campaign on it, it’s still backroom conversation by a bunch of policy wonks like me saying, ‘What can we do to make this happen?’ ”

VIDEO: More than 470 Washington National Guard personnel took part in the Cascadia Rising earthquake preparedness exercise in June. Report from iFiberoneNews

That’s not to say there hasn’t been progress. In June, “Cascadia Rising 2016,” a four-day earthquake and tsunami drill began in Washington and Oregon to test emergency response measures. About 20,000 people, including the U.S. National Guard, and federal, state and local emergency responders, practiced saving lives and delivering services while testing ways to communicate with no electricity or cell service.

The region will also be getting support from the 100 Resilient Cities initiative of the Rockefeller Foundation. Seattle and Vancouver were added to the roster in May. Both will receive financial support for a chief resilience officer as well as access to best practices, service providers and partners.

Wilson had been hoping Portland would be chosen as well.

Recovery will be an immense challenge. The U.S. already has a $1.5 trillion shortfall for infrastructure maintenance, said Alex Kaplan, senior vice president, global partnerships, Swiss Re, who works with the 100 Resilient Cities initiative.

Finding the Money

“Where will the money come from?” asked Jamie Miller, head of property for North America, Swiss Re Corporate Solutions. And when?

Jamie Miller, head of property, North America, Swiss Re Corporate Solutions

Jamie Miller, head of property, North America, Swiss Re Corporate Solutions

One year after Superstorm Sandy, about 75 percent of federal funding still had not been dispersed, he said.

The challenges settling claims following Sandy’s devastation will surely reoccur, Miller said. And there will be a “huge gap” between insured and economic losses for small business owners.

“Where a policy does not cover earthquake or flood, an insured’s coverage may only include ensuing losses, such as fire resulting from a burst gas pipe.”

Business income protection and coverage for extra expenses will not come close to covering the costs required to return to operation, he said.

For larger companies, even the most sophisticated risk manager will be challenged to calculate — or protect — the business income and recovery losses.

Access to gasoline will disappear rapidly, so emergency generators will become useless. Customers will be nonexistent.

Construction crews will be overwhelmed and face labor shortages; their price will dramatically escalate, assuming it’s even possible to hire a crew, Miller said.

Built-in redundancies to use nearby facilities to get back in business will be useless since the entire region will be affected, and receiving supplies, impossible.

Plus, with the popularity of just-in-time supply chains, companies will likely have few resources on hand to facilitate production.

At the same time, U.S. and Asian companies that rely on goods from the devastated area will go lacking.

“The big question is, what are we going to do about it?” — Jay Wilson, Clackamas County (Oregon) resilience coordinator

After the Thailand floods in 2011, some car manufacturers delayed production for months because of a lack of components, while computer industry companies saw shortages and adverse impacts for six months to a year.

When large commercial enterprises file insurance claims, they may be dealing with as many as 20 companies.

“Getting them all to agree on an adjustment is a big challenge,” Miller said.

Insurers that did not adequately manage risk aggregation will face bankruptcy. That, in turn, will leave third-party vendors and service providers unpaid and work undone.

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Steven Jakubowski, president, Aon Benfield’s impact forecasting team, said insurer solvency will be an issue. “We saw that in Northridge,” which was a 6.7 magnitude earthquake that hit Los Angeles on Jan. 17, 1994.

According to the Insurance Information Institute, Northridge caused $15.3 billion in insured damage, topped only by Hurricane Katrina, the attacks on the World Trade Center and Hurricane Andrew.

“We are so big on public/private partnerships because of this,” Miller said. “The resiliency initiative is all about creating awareness of overall risk.”

Swiss Re’s global partnerships business focuses on building long-term resilience, while helping governments transfer risk away from taxpayers and into the private market, aiming to reduce over-dependence on an increasingly strained federal disaster budget, Kaplan said.

Wilson said the aim of emergency planning is to create a two-to-four week recovery window. Right now, it’s months and years.

“We haven’t had anything this big in our country before,” he said. “For me, I just accept it. It’s gonna happen,” said Wilson. “The big question is, what are we going to do about it?” &

Anne Freedman is managing editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Absence Management

Establishing Balance With Volunteers

It’s good business to allow job-leave for volunteer emergency responders, whether or not state laws apply.
By: | January 10, 2018 • 7 min read

If 2017 had a moniker, it might be “the year of the natural disasters,” thanks to a phenomenal array of catastrophic or severe events— hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, ice storms and floods.

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Combined with smaller-scale fires and other emergencies, these incidents tax the resources of local and state emergency services, often prompting the need to call volunteer emergency responders into action.

But as lean as most organizations are already running, volunteer activities can sometimes cause friction between employees and employers. Handling conflicts the wrong way can potentially lead to legal headaches, harm employee morale and batter a company’s reputation.

State by State Variations

Most employers are aware of the various federal and state leave laws protecting their employees, including family and medical leave, pregnancy leave and military leave. But leave laws that protect the livelihoods of volunteer emergency responders are more likely to fly under the radar of some HR managers and risk managers.

Such laws don’t exist in every state, but more than 20 states do have some type of law in place to protect volunteers including emergency responders, firefighters, disaster workers, medical responders, ambulance drivers or peace officers.

Marti Cardi, vice president of Product Compliance for Matrix Absence Management

The laws vary broadly. Nearly all specify that such leave be unpaid, and that employees disclose their volunteer status to employers and provide documentation for each leave. But there is a spectrum of variations in terms of what may trigger an eligible leave. Some, for instance, apply for any emergency that prompts a call from the volunteer’s affiliated responder group. Others may require a government declaration of emergency for the law to be triggered.

While many of the laws do not explicitly require employers to let employees leave work when called to an emergency during a shift, most specify that an employee may be late or even miss work entirely without facing termination or any other adverse employment action.

Some states mandate a maximum number of unpaid leave days that a volunteer can claim. But others may place more significant burdens on employers. In California, for instance, employers with 50 or more employees are required to grant up to 14 days of unpaid leave for training activities in addition to any leave taken to respond to emergency events. For multistate employers, keeping on top of what obligations may apply in each circumstance can be a challenge.

Significant Risks

Large or mid-sized employers may rely on absence management providers to keep them in compliance. For smaller employers though, it may be as simple as looking up a state’s law via Google to find out what’s required. However, checking in with the state department of labor or the company’s attorney may be the best way to get the correct facts.

“I would caution that just because you don’t find something [on the internet], it doesn’t mean it’s not there,” said absence management and employment law attorney Marti Cardi, vice president of Product Compliance for Matrix Absence Management.

For example, Cardi said, an obscure Texas law provides job-protected leave for volunteer ham radio operators called into service during an emergency.

Cardi said employers should task HR to investigate the laws in each state the company operates in, and to ensure that supervisors are educated about the existence of these laws.

“If a supervisor is told by one of his or her employees, ‘Sorry I’m not coming in today … I’ve been called to volunteer firefighter duty for the [nearby region] fire,’” she said, you want to be sure that the supervisor knows not to take action against the employee, and to contact HR for guidance.

“Training supervisors to be aware of this kind of absence is really important.”

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An employer that does terminate a protected volunteer for responding to an emergency may be ordered to pay back wages and reinstate the employee. In some cases, the employee may also be able to sue for wrongful termination.

And of course, “you don’t want to be the company in the headlines that is getting sued because you fired the volunteer firefighter,” she added.

If an employer bars a volunteer from responding, the worst-case scenario may be a third-party claim. Failure to comply with the law could give rise to a claim along the lines of “‘If you had complied with your statutory obligation to give Jane Doe time to respond, my loved one would not have died,’” explained Philadelphia-based Jonathan Segal, partner at law firm Duane Morris and managing principal of the Duane Morris Institute.

“That’s the claim I think is the largest in terms of legal risk.”

Even if no one dies or is seriously injured, he added, “there could still be significant reputational risk if an individual were to go to the media and say, ‘Look, I got called by the fire department and I wasn’t allowed to go.’”

The Right Thing to Do

What employers should be thinking about, Segal said, is that whether or not you have a legal obligation to provide job-protected leave for volunteer responders, “there’s still the question of what are the consequences if you don’t?”

Employee morale should be factored in, he said. The last thing any company wants is for employees to perceive it as insensitive to their interests or the interests of the community at large.

“Sometimes employers need to go beyond the law, and this is one of those times,” — Jonathan Segal, partner, Duane Morris; managing principal, Duane Morris Institute

“How is this going to resonate with my employees, with my workforce, how are people going to see this? These are all relevant factors to consider,” he said.

There’s an argument to be made for employers to look at the bigger picture when it comes to any volunteer responders on their payroll, said Segal.

“Sometimes employers need to go beyond the law, and this is one of those times,” he said. “Think about the case where’s there’s not a specific state law [for emergency responders] and you say to a volunteer, ‘No, you can’t leave to deal with this fire’ and then people die. You as an employer have potentially played a role, indirectly, because you didn’t allow the first responder or responders to go,” he said.

The bottom line is that “it’s the right thing to do, even if it’s not required by law,” agreed Cardi.

“I feel that companies should have a policy that they’re not going to discipline or discharge someone for absences due to this kind of civic service, subject to verification of course.”

Clear Policy

While most employers do strive to be good corporate citizens, it goes without question that employers need to guard their own interests. It’s not especially likely that volunteer responders will try to take advantage of the unpaid leave allowed them, but of course, it could happen.

That’s why it’s important to have policies that are aligned with state laws. Those policies could include:

  • Notifying the company of any volunteer affiliations either upon hire or as soon they are activated as volunteers.
  • Requiring that employees notify a supervisor as soon as possible if called to an emergency (state requirements vary).
  • Requiring documentation after the event from the head of the entity supervising the volunteer’s activities.

If at some point it becomes excessive – someone has responded to emergencies five times in nine weeks, then it’s time to examine the specifics of the law and have a discussion with the employee about what’s reasonable, said Segal. It may also be time to ask specifics about whether the person is volunteering each time, or are they being called.

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In some cases, the discussion may need to be about finding a middle ground, especially if an employee has taken on an excessively demanding volunteer role.

“We encourage volunteers to pick the style that best fits their schedule,” said Greta Gustafson, a representative of the American Red Cross. “Disaster volunteers can elect to respond to disasters locally, nationally, or even virtually, and each assignment varies in length — from responding overnight to a home fire in your community to deploying across the country for several weeks following a hurricane.

“The Red Cross encourages all volunteers to talk with their employers to determine their availability and to communicate this with their local Red Cross chapter.”

Segal suggests approaching it as an interactive dialogue — borrowing from the ADA. “Employers may need to open a discussion along the lines of ‘I need you here this week because this week we have a deliverable on Friday and you’re critical to that client deliverable,’” he said, but also identify when the employee’s absence would be less critical.

No doubt there will be tough calls. An employer may have its hands full just trying to meet basic customer needs and need all hands on deck.

“That may be a situation where you say, ‘First let me check the law,’” said Segal. If there’s a leave law that applies, “then I’m going to need to comply with it. If there’s not, then you may need to balance competing interests and say, ‘We need you here.’” &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]