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

Emerging Risks

Stadium Safety

Soft targets, such as sports stadiums, must increase measures to protect lives and their business.
By: | January 10, 2018 • 8 min read

Acts of violence and terror can break out in even the unlikeliest of places.

Look at the 2013 Boston Marathon, where two bombs went off, killing three and injuring dozens of others in a terrorist attack. Or consider the Orlando Pulse nightclub, where 49 people were killed and 58 wounded. Most recently in Las Vegas, a gunman killed 58 and injured hundreds of others.

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The world is not inherently evil, but these evil acts still find a way into places like churches, schools, concerts and stadiums.

“We didn’t see these kinds of attacks 20 years ago,” said Glenn Chavious, managing director, global sports & recreation practice leader, Industria Risk & Insurance Services.

As a society, we have advanced through technology, he said. Technology’s platform has enabled the message of terror to spread further faster.

“But it’s not just with technology. Our cultures, our personal grievances, have brought people out of their comfort zones.”

Chavious said that people still had these grievances 20 years ago but were less likely to act out. Tech has linked people around the globe to other like-minded individuals, allowing for others to join in on messages of terror.

“The progression of terrorist acts over the last 10 years has very much been central to the emergence of ‘lone wolf’ actors. As was the case in both Manchester and Las Vegas, the ‘lone wolf’ dynamic presents an altogether unique set of challenges for law enforcement and event service professionals,” said John

Glenn Chavious, managing director, global sports & recreation practice leader, Industria Risk & Insurance Services

Tomlinson, senior vice president, head of entertainment, Lockton.

As more violent outbreaks take place in public spaces, risk managers learn from and better understand what attackers want. Each new event enables risk managers to see what works and what can be improved upon to better protect people and places.

But the fact remains that the nature and pattern of attacks are changing.

“Many of these actions are devised in complete obscurity and on impulse, and are carried out by individuals with little to no prior visibility, in terms of behavioral patterns or threat recognition, thus making it virtually impossible to maintain any elements of anticipation by security officials,” said Tomlinson.

With vehicles driving into crowds, active shooters and the random nature of attacks, it’s hard to gauge what might come next, said Warren Harper, global sports & events practice leader, Marsh.

Public spaces like sporting arenas are particularly vulnerable because they are considered ‘soft targets.’ They are areas where people gather in large numbers for recreation. They are welcoming to their patrons and visitors, much like a hospital, and the crowds that attend come in droves.

NFL football stadiums, for example, can hold anywhere from 25,000 to 93,000 people at maximum capacity — and that number doesn’t include workers, players or other behind-the-scenes personnel.

“Attacks are a big risk management issue,” said Chavious. “Insurance is the last resort we want to rely upon. We’d rather be preventing it to avoid such events.”

Preparing for Danger

The second half of 2017 proved a trying few months for the insurance industry, facing hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires and — unfortunately — multiple mass shootings.

The industry was estimated to take a more than $1 billion hit from the Las Vegas massacre in October 2017. A few years back, the Boston Marathon bombings cost businesses around $333 million each day the city was shut down following the attack. Officials were on a manhunt for the suspects in question, and Boston was on lockdown.

“Many of these actions are devised in complete obscurity and on impulse, and are carried out by individuals with little to no prior visibility.” — John Tomlinson, senior vice president, head of entertainment, Lockton

“Fortunately, we have not had a complete stadium go down,” said Harper. But a mass casualty event at a stadium can lead to the death or injury of athletes, spectators and guests; psychological trauma; potential workers’ comp claims from injured employees; lawsuits; significant reputational damage; property damage and prolonged business interruption losses.

The physical damage, said Harper, might be something risk managers can gauge beforehand, but loss of life is immeasurable.

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The best practice then, said Chavious, is awareness and education.

“A lot of preparedness comes from education. [Stadiums] need a risk management plan.”

First and foremost, Chavious said, stadiums need to perform a security risk assessment. Find out where vulnerable spots are, decide where education can be improved upon and develop other safety measures over time.

Areas outside the stadium are soft targets, said Harper. The parking lot, the ticketing and access areas and even the metro transit areas where guests mingle before and after a game are targeted more often than inside.

Last year, for example, a stadium in Manchester was the target of a bomb, which detonated outside the venue as concert-goers left. In 2015, the Stade de France in Paris was the target of suicide bombers and active shooters, who struck the outside of the stadium while a soccer match was held inside.

Security, therefore, needs to be ready to react both inside and outside the vicinity. Reviewing past events and seeing what works has helped risk mangers improve safety strategies.

“A lot of places are getting into table-top exercises” to make sure their people are really trained, added Harper.

In these exercises, employees from various departments come together to brainstorm and work through a hypothetical terrorist situation.

A facilitator will propose the scenario — an active shooter has been spotted right before the game begins, someone has called in a bomb threat, a driver has fled on foot after driving into a crowd — and the stadium’s staff is asked how they should respond.

“People tend to act on assumptions, which may be wrong, but this is a great setting for them to brainstorm and learn,” said Harper.

Technology and Safety

In addition to education, stadiums are ahead of the game, implementing high-tech security cameras and closed-circuit TV monitoring, requiring game-day audiences to use clear/see-through bags when entering the arena, upping employee training on safety protocols and utilizing vapor wake dogs.

Drones are also adding a protective layer.

John Tomlinson, senior vice president, head of entertainment, Lockton

“Drones are helpful in surveying an area and can alert security to any potential threat,” said Chavious.

“Many stadiums have an area between a city’s metro and the stadium itself. If there’s a disturbance there, and you don’t have a camera in that area, you could use the drone instead of moving physical assets.”

Chavious added that “the overhead view will pick up potential crowd concentration, see if there are too many people in one crowd, or drones can fly overhead and be used to assess situations like a vehicle that’s in a place it shouldn’t be.”

But like with all new technology, drones too have their downsides. There’s the expense of owning, maintaining and operating the drone. Weather conditions can affect how and when a drone is used, so it isn’t a reliable source. And what if that drone gets hacked?

“The evolution of venue security protocols most certainly includes the increased usage of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), including drones, as the scope and territorial vastness provided by UAS, from a monitoring perspective, is much more expansive than ground-based apparatus,” said Tomlinson.

“That said,” he continued, “there have been many documented instances in which the intrusion of unauthorized drones at live events have posed major security concerns and have actually heightened the risk of injury to participants and attendees.”

Still, many experts, including Tomlinson, see drones playing a significant role in safety at stadiums moving forward.

“I believe the utilization of drones will continue to be on the forefront of risk mitigation innovation in the live event space, albeit with some very tight operating controls,” he said.

The SAFETY Act

In response to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. Homeland Security enacted the Support Anti-Terrorism by Fostering Effective

Warren Harper, global sports & events practice leader, Marsh

Technologies Act (SAFETY Act).

The primary purpose of the SAFETY Act was to encourage potential manufacturers or sellers of anti-terrorism technologies to continue to develop and commercialize these technologies (like video monitoring or drones).

There was a worry that the threat of liability in such an event would deter and prevent sellers from pursing these technologies, which are aimed at saving lives. Instead, the SAFETY Act provides incentive by adding a system of risk and litigation management.

“[The SAFETY Act] is geared toward claims arising out of acts of terrorism,” said Harper.

Bottom line: It’s added financial protection. Businesses both large and small can apply for the SAFETY designation — in fact, many NFL teams push for the designation. So far, four have reached SAFETY certification: Lambeau Field, MetLife Stadium, University of Phoenix Stadium and Gillette Stadium.

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To become certified, reviewers with the SAFETY Act assess stadiums for their compliance with the most up-to-date terrorism products. They look at their built-in emergency response plans, cyber security measures, hiring and training of employees, among other criteria.

The process can take over a year, but once certified, stadiums benefit because liability for an event is lessened. One thing to remember, however, is that the added SAFETY Act protection only holds weight when a catastrophic event is classified as an act of terrorism.

“Generally speaking, I think the SAFETY Act has been instrumental in paving the way for an accelerated development of anti-terrorism products and services,” said Tomlinson.

“The benefit of gaining elements of impunity from third-party liability related matters has served as a catalyst for developers to continue to push the envelope, so to speak, in terms of ideas and innovation.”

So while attackers are changing their methods and trying to stay ahead of safety protocols at stadiums, the SAFETY Act, as well as risk managers and stadium owners, keep stadiums investing in newer, more secure safety measures. &

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