Flood Risk

Protecting Dam Breach Inundation Zones

Dam failures are a low probability but high consequence event, best addressed by preparation and maintenance.
By: | June 1, 2017 • 7 min read

After a five-year drought, the rains finally returned to California this winter. Lake Oroville, which was formed in 1967 at the foot of the Sierra Mountains by the nation’s tallest dam, began to refill.

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An atmospheric river, colloquially known as a “Pineapple Express,” continued dropping water at such a pace that it replenished the reservoir and then some. The swollen lake forced the excess water onto an emergency spillway alongside the Oroville Dam for the first time in half a century.

The spillway cement crumbled and sent a cascade of water down the mountainside. Engineers feared the erosion compromised not only the spillway but also the 770-foot-tall earthen dam.

An emergency evacuation was hastily ordered and nearly 190,000 residents were forced to flee their homes. Traffic clogged roads. Fortunately, no life was lost and water levels eventually receded.

For many, this crisis is a wake-up call for renewed assessment of the aging infrastructure of the U.S. dam system and the emergency response plans drawn to prevent loss of life in the event of a failure.

Dams Exceeding Effective Dates

Nearly all of the 700 dams managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are more than 30 years old. More than half have reached or exceeded the 50-year service lives for which they were designed. Oroville Dam turns 50 next year.

Tim McCarty is a risk control manager at Trident Public Risk Solutions, which insures a wide range of municipalities including those in close proximity to a dam. His statistics on the aging dam system in the U.S. are alarming.

“The average age of our dams nationwide is 56 years,” he said. “And the average age of a failed dam is 62 years. “So we’re kind of reaching that point where we’re starting to have some very old infrastructure and if it’s not properly maintained we may see repeats of this type of an incidence,” McCarty said.

Tim McCarty, risk control manager, Trident Public Risk Solutions

The Federal Emergency Management Agency says dam failures are a “low probability but high consequence” event. Due to the rarity, many people who live downstream in “dam breach inundation zones” are completely unaware of the potential hazard. But they are, in fact, at the mercy of the dam’s ongoing health.

“The only time the concept is front and center is when water is rushing over the dam,” said John Dickson, president of NFS Edge Insurance Agency.

“I worry constantly that that’s a total disservice to the American people. We need to have the conversation when the sun is shining.”

Dams are a vital part of the U.S. infrastructure. They provide flood protection, water supply, hydropower, irrigation and recreation. But all it takes is one busy muskrat to compromise a dam’s integrity and cause a breach.

The operators of the Oroville Dam were advised in 2005 to shore up the spillway with concrete. For a dozen years, the expensive recommendation was tabled. The reasoning was the emergency spillway was never used because the lake water never rose high enough.

When it finally did, the emergency response — mass evacuations and helicopters dropping dirt and boulders to fortify the dam — averted a catastrophe. But it was an expense way beyond the cost of maintenance. And some never received notice of the evacution, according to the Associated Press.

Dams Fail Quickly

Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers issues a “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.” Bridges, roads, and tunnel systems are evaluated on capacity, condition, funding, future need, operation and maintenance, public safety, resilience and innovation.

Dams received a “D” grade in the 2017 report released in March. The Army Corps of Engineers estimated it would take $45 billion to fix aging, yet critical, high-hazard potential dams.

It’s not only dams that are in need of repairs. The U.S. received a “D+” overall on 16 areas of infrastructure. To raise the overall infrastructure grade and maintain our global competitiveness, Congress and the states must invest an additional $206 billion, according to the report.

“The average age of our dams nationwide is 56 years. And the average age of a failed dam is 62 years.” —Tim McCarty, risk control manager, Trident Public Risk Solutions

State agencies regulate most of the nation’s 90,000 dams. Unlike bridges and roads, the U.S. government may inspect the dams but it doesn’t maintain most of them. More than 65 percent are privately owned and those owners may lack the money needed for adequate maintenance.

Experts say dam owners need to know how their structures are aging and prepare for the repairs that need to be done. They also need to develop a time line for replacement and know how to respond if the dam fails.

It is most important to conduct regular inspections and deal with what seem to be minor issues immediately.

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“Many people just think you build a dam and it’s just there and fades into the background,” McCarty said.

“But it really is an active system that has to be maintained — just like a road or a bridge.”

Gritzo speaks with clients about opportunities to retrofit facilities and fill in the weak spots. More often than not, an engineer looks at an aging structure and weighs when it is best for a new build. The cost of that is often too challenging, Gritzo said.

Unlike a river flooding over its banks, a dam breach may occur with little to no warning.

An emergency response plan is needed to lay out the time required to get mitigation efforts in place and who is responsible for completing each task.

Conduct Hazard Assessments

“With a dam breach, when it fails, it fails quickly, the water comes out quickly and there’s a limited amount of time,” said Gritzo.

Risk managers need to conduct solid hazard assessments in the event one of these dams has a catastrophic failure. FM Global uses tools such as complex computer models to calculate different breach scenarios and determine where the water might go and how much flooding might occur when it gets there.

The insurer works with clients to decide if that amount of water is something they can protect a facility against, or if it’s too large.

“If it’s a meter of water or less, you can protect against it,” Gritzo said. “That’s an easy cut-off point.”

More than a meter and there are fewer protection measures available.

There were nearly 15,500 dams designated as “high-hazard” in 2016. Of those, about 2,170 dams are deemed “deficient high-hazard” due to the lack of investment.

When a dam is designated a “high hazard,” it means there’s a potential for loss of life if it fails. All high hazard dams require an emergency action plan (EAP). Dams with a “low hazard” or “significant hazard” may have a low expectation for loss of life but still carry potential for damage to surrounding terrain, roads or buildings.

As of 2015, a quarter of dams designated “high hazard” lack an EAP. Sometimes, dam owners don’t even know they are labeled high hazard, McCarty said.

“The only time the concept is front and center is when water is rushing over the dam.” — John Dickson, president, NFS Edge Insurance Agency

Risk managers should contact the authority or municipality that creates the EAP to start ongoing communication and organize emergency drills.

“The time to be swapping business cards and introducing yourself is not when there’s an emergency,” Gritzo said.

McCarty periodically reviews the state assessments of dams in his clients’ communities to ascertain the condition of the dams and what ongoing maintenance has been done. He also checks that each community has an EAP in place should something occur.

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“Our clients are doing a great job with it, but we know that there are a lot of dams that aren’t getting the attention they need,” McCarty said.

“There has to be a more robust conversation around flood,” said Dickson of NFS Edge.

“The way we do that is not responding in the face of imminent disaster, but having the conversation when the levee is not about to be breached or the spillway is not being activated because the dam is at historic highs.”

Municipal leaders should address any ongoing maintenance needed, the EAP they have in place and the responsibilities that go along with having a dam, McCarty said.

“We’ve had an incident here that has heightened our awareness. Those things tend to tail off as time passes,” McCarty said. “We really need to keep this in our collective memories otherwise we’ll see more and more of these incidents occur.” &

Juliann Walsh is a staff writer at Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Risk Report: Hospitality

Bridging the Protection Gap

When travelers stay home, hospitality companies recoup lost income through customized, data-defined policies.
By: | October 12, 2017 • 9 min read

In the wake of a hurricane, earthquake, pandemic, terror attack, or any event that causes carnage on a grand scale, affected areas usually are subject to a large “protection gap” – the difference between insured loss and total economic loss. Depending on the type of damage, the gap can be enormous, leaving companies and communities scrambling to obtain the funds needed for a quick recovery.

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RMS estimates that Hurricane Harvey’s rampage through Texas could cause as much as $90 billion in total economic damage. The modeling firm also stated that “[National Flood Insurance Program] penetration rates are as low as 20 percent in the Houston area, and thus most of the losses will be uninsured.”

In addition to uninsured losses from physical damage, many businesses in unaffected surrounding areas will suffer non-physical contingent business interruption losses. The hospitality industry is particularly susceptible to this exposure, and its losses often fall into the protection gap.

Natural catastrophes and other major events that compromise travelers’ safety have prolonged impacts on tourism and hospitality. Even if they suffer no physical damage, any hotel or resort will lose business as travelers avoid the area.

“The hospitality industry is reliant on people moving freely. If people don’t feel safe, they won’t travel. And that cuts off the lifeblood of the industry,” said Christian Ryan, U.S. Hospitality and Gaming Practice Leader, Marsh.

Christian Ryan
U.S. Hospitality and Gaming Practice Leader, Marsh

“People are going away from the devastation, not toward it,” said Evan Glassman, president and CEO, New Paradigm Underwriters.

Drops in revenue resulting from decreased occupancy and average daily room rate can sometimes be difficult to trace back to a major event when a hotel suffered no physical harm. Traditional business interruption policies require physical damage as a coverage condition. Even contingent business interruption coverages might only kick in if a hotel’s direct suppliers were taken offline by physical damage.

If everyone remains untouched and intact, though, it’s near impossible to demonstrate how much of a business downturn was caused by the hurricane three states away.

“Hospitality companies are concerned that their traditional insurance policies only cover business interruption resulting from physical damage,” said Bob Nusslein, head of Innovative Risk Solutions for the Americas, Swiss Re Corporate Solutions.

“These companies have large uninsured exposure from events which do not cause physical damage to their assets, yet result in reduced income.”

Power of Parametrics

Parametric insurance is designed specifically to bridge the protection gap and address historically uninsured or underinsured risks.

Parametric coverage is defined and triggered by the characteristics of an event, rather than characteristics of the loss. Triggers are custom-built based on an insured’s unique location and exposures, as well as their budget and risk tolerance.

“Triggers typically include a combination of the occurrence of a given event and a reduction in occupancy rates or RevPar for the specific hotel assets,” Nusslein said. Though sometimes the parameters of an event — like measures of storm intensity — are enough to trigger a payout on their own.

For hurricane coverage, for example, one policy trigger might be the designation of a Category 3-5 storm within a 100-mile radius of the location. Another trigger might be a 20 percent drop in RevPAR, or revenue per available room. If both parameters are met, a pre-determined payout amount would be administered. No investigations or claims adjustment necessary.

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The same type of coverage could apply in less severe situations where traditional insurance just doesn’t respond. Event or entertainment companies, for example, often operate at the whim of Mother Nature. While they may not be forced to cancel a production due to inclement weather, they will nevertheless take a hit to the bottom line if fewer patrons show up.

Christian Phillips, focus group leader for Beazley’s Weatherguard parametric products, said that as little as a quarter- to a half-inch of rain over a four- to five-hour period is enough to prevent people from coming to an event, or to leave early.

“That’s a persistent rainfall that will wear down people’s patience,” he said.

“A rule of thumb for parametric weather coverage, if you’re looking to protect loss of revenue when your event has not actually been cancelled, you will probably lose up to 20 to 30 percent of your revenue in bad weather. That depends on the client and the type of event, but that’s the standard we’ve realized from historical claims data.”

The industry is now drawing on data to establish these rules of thumb for more serious losses sustained by hospitality companies after major events.

“Until recently the insurance industry has not created products to address these non-physical damage business interruption exposures. The industry is now collaborating with big data companies to access data, which in turn, allows us to structure new products,” Nusslein said.

Data-Driven Triggers

Insurers source data from weather organizations that track temperature, rainfall, wind speeds and snowfall, among other perils, by the hour and sometimes by the minute. Parametric triggers are determined based on historical storm data, which indicates how likely a given location is to be hit.

“We try to get a minimum of 30 years of hourly data for those perils for a given location,” Phillips said.

“Global weather is changing, though, so we focus particularly on the last five to 10 years. From that we can build a policy that fits the exposure that we see in the data, and we use the data to price it correctly.”

New Paradigm Underwriters collects their own wind speed data via a network of anemometers that stretch from Corpus Christi, Texas, all the way to Massachusetts, and works with modeling firms like RMS to gather additional underwriting information.

The hospitality industry is reliant on people moving freely. If people don’t feel safe, they won’t travel. And that cuts off the lifeblood of the industry.– Christian Ryan, U.S. Hospitality and Gaming Practice Leader, Marsh

While severe weather is the most common event of concern, parametric cover can also apply to terrorism and pandemic risks.

“We offer a terror attack quote on every one of our event policies because everyone asks for it,” said Beazley’s Phillips.

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“We didn’t do it 10 years ago, but that’s the world we live in today.”

An attack could lead to civil unrest, fire or any number of things outside an insured’s control. It would likely disrupt travel over a wide geographic region.

“A terrorist event could cause wide area devastation and loss of attraction, which results in lost income for hospitality companies,” Nusslein said.

Disease outbreaks also dampen travel and tourism. Zika, which was most common in South America and the Caribbean, still prevented people from traveling to south Florida.

“Occupancy went down significantly in that region,” Marsh’s Ryan said.

“If there is a pandemic across the U.S., a parametric coverage would make sense. All travel within and inbound to the U.S. would go down, and parametric policies could protect hotel revenues in non-impacted areas. Official statements from the CDC such as evacuation orders or warnings could qualify as a trigger.”

Less data exists around terror attacks and pandemics than for weather, though hotels are taking steps to collect information around their exposure.

“It’s hard to quantify how an infectious disease outbreak will impact business, but we and clients are using big data to track travel patterns,” Ryan said.

Hospitality Metrics

Any data collected has to be verified, or “cleaned.”

“We only deal with entities that will clean the data so we know the historical data we’re getting is accurate,” Phillips said.

“There are mountains of data out there, but it’s unusable if it’s not clean.”

Parametric underwriters also tap into the insured’s historical data around occupancy and room rates to estimate the losses it may suffer from decreased revenue.

Bob Nusslein, head of Innovative Risk Solutions for the Americas, Swiss Re Corporate Solutions.

“The hospitality industry uses two key metrics to measure loss of business income. These include occupancy rate and revenue per available room, or RevPAR. These are the traditional measurements of business health,” Swiss Re’s Nusslein said.  RevPAR is calculated by multiplying a hotel’s average daily room rate (ADR) by its occupancy rate.

“The hotel industry has been contributing its data on occupancy, RevPAR, room supply and demand, and historical data on geographical and seasonal trends to independent data aggregators for many years. It has done an exceptional job of aggregating business data to measure performance downturns from routine economic fluctuations and from major ‘Black Swan’ events, like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the 2008 financial crisis or the 2009 SARS epidemic.”

Claims history can also provide an understanding of how much revenue a hotel or an event company has lost in the past due to any type of business interruption. Business performance metrics combined with claims data determine an appropriate payout amount.

Like coverage triggers, payouts from parametric policies are specifically defined and pre-determined based on data and statistical evidence.

This is the key benefit of parametric coverage: triggers are hit, payment is made. With minimal or no adjustment process, claims are paid quickly, enabling insureds to begin recovery immediately.

Applying Parametric Payments

For hotels with no physical damage, but significant drops in occupancy and revenue, funds from a parametric policy can help bridge the income gap until business picks up again, covering expenses related to regular maintenance, utilities and marketing.

Because payment is not tied to a specific type or level of loss, it can be applied wherever insureds need it, so long as it doesn’t advance them to a better financial position than they enjoyed prior to the loss.

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Parametric policies can be designed to fill in where an insured has not yet met their deductible on a separate traditional policy. Or it could function as excess coverage. Or it could cover exposures excluded by other policies, or for which there is no insurance option at all. Completely bespoke, parametric coverages are a function of each client’s individual exposures, risk tolerance and budget.

“Parametric insurance enables underwriting of risks that are outside tolerance levels from a traditional standpoint,” NPU’s Glassman said.

The non-physical business interruption risks faced by the hospitality industry match that description pretty closely.

“Hotels are a good fit for parametric insurance because they have a guaranteed loss from a business income standpoint when there is a major storm coming,” Glassman said.

While only a handful of carriers currently offer a form of parametric coverage, the abundance of available data and advancement in data collection and analytical tools will likely fuel its popularity.

Companies can maximize the benefits of parametric coverages by building them as supplements to traditional business interruption or event cancellation policies. Both New Paradigm Underwriters and Beazley either work with other property insurers or create hybrid products in-house to combine the best of both worlds and assemble a comprehensive risk transfer solution. &

Katie Siegel is an associate editor at Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at [email protected]