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

Black Swan: EMP

Chaos From Above

An electromagnetic pulse event triggered by the detonation of a low-yield nuclear device in Earth’s atmosphere triggers economic and societal chaos.
By: | July 27, 2017 • 9 min read

Scenario

The vessel that seeks to undo America arrives in the teeth of a storm.

The 4,000-ton Indonesian freighter Pandawas Viper sails towards California in December 2017. It is shepherded toward North America by a fierce Pacific winter storm, a so-called “Pineapple Express,” boasting 15-foot waves and winds topping 70 mph.

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Normally, Pandawas Viper carries cargo containers. This time she harbors a much more potent payload.

Unbeknownst to U.S. defense and intelligence officials, the Viper carries a single nuclear weapon, loaded onto a naval surface-to-air missile, or SAM, concealed below deck.

The warhead has an involved history. It was smuggled out of Kyrgyzstan in 1997, eventually finding its way into the hands of Islamic militants in Indonesia that are loosely affiliated with ISIS.

Even for these ambitious and murderous militants, outfitting a freighter with a nuclear device in secrecy and equipping it to sail to North America in the hopes of firing its deadly payload is quite an undertaking.

Close to $2 million in bribes and other considerations are paid out to ensure that the Pandawas Viper sets sail for America unmolested, her cargo a secret held by less than two dozen extremist Islamic soldiers.

The storm is a perfect cover.

Officials along the West Coast busy themselves tracking the storm, doing what they think is the right thing by warning residents about flooding and landslides, and securing ports against storm-related damage.

No one gives a second thought to the freighter flying Indonesian colors making its way toward the Port of Long Beach, as it apparently should be.

It’s only at two in the morning on Sunday, December 22, that an alert Port of San Diego administrator charged with monitoring ocean-going cargo traffic sees something that causes him to do a double take.

GPS tracking information indicates to him that the Pandawas Viper is not heading to Long Beach, as indicated on its digital shipping logs, but is veering toward Baja, Calif.

Were it to keep its present course, it would arrive at Tijuana, Mexico.

The port administrator dutifully notifies the U.S. Coast Guard.

“Indonesian freighter Pandawas Viper off course, possibly storm-related navigational difficulties,” he emails on a secure digital communication channel operated by the port and the Coast Guard.

“Monitor and alert as necessary,” his message, including the ship’s current coordinates, concludes.

In turn, a communications officer in the Coast Guard’s Alameda, Calif. offices dutifully alerts members of the Coast Guard’s Pacific basin security team. She’s done her job but she’s about an hour late.

At 3:15 am Pacific time on December 22, the deck on the Pandawas Viper opens and the naval surface-to-air missile, operated remotely by a militant operative in Jakarta, is let loose.

It’s headed not for Los Angeles or San Diego, but rather Earth’s atmosphere, where it detonates about 50 miles above the surface.

There it interacts with the planet’s atmosphere, ionosphere and magnetic field to produce an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, which radiates down to Earth, creating additional electric or ground-induced currents.

The operative’s aim is perfect. With a charge of hundreds and in some cases thousands of volts, the GICs cause severe physical damage to all unprotected electronics and transformers. Microchips operate in the range of 1.5 to 5 volts and thus are obliterated by the billions.

As a result, the current created by the blast knocks out 70 percent of the nation’s grid. What began as an overhead flash of light plunges much of the nation into darkness.

The first indication for most people that there is a problem is that their trusty cellphones can do no more than perform calculations, tell them the time or play their favorite tunes.

As minutes turn to hours, however, people realize that they’ve got much bigger concerns on their hands. Critical infrastructure for transportation and communications ceases. Telecommunication breakdowns mean that fire and police services are unreachable.

For the alone, the elderly and the otherwise vulnerable, panic sets in quickly.

Hospital administrators feverishly calculate how long their emergency power supplies can last.

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Supermarkets and other retailers anticipating one of their biggest shopping days of the year on that Monday, December 23, instead wake up to cold homes and chilling prospects.

Grocery stores with their electricity cut off are unable to open and product losses begin to mount. Banks don’t open. Cash machines are inoperable.

In the colder parts of the United States, the race to stay warm is on.  Within a day’s time in some poorer neighborhoods, furniture is broken up and ignited for kindling.

As a result, fires break out, fires that in many cases will not draw a response from firefighting crews due to the communication breakdown.

As days of interruption turn into weeks and months, starvation, rioting and disease take many.

Say good-bye to most of the commercial property/casualty insurance companies that you know. The resulting chaos adds up to more than $1 trillion in economic losses. Property, liability, credit, marine, space and aviation insurers fail in droves.

Assume widespread catastrophic transformer damage, long-term blackouts, lengthy restoration times and chronic shortages. It will take four to 10 years for a full recovery.

The crew which launched the naval surface-to-air missile that resulted in all of this chaos makes a clean getaway. All seven that were aboard the Pandawas Viper make their way to Ensenada, Mexico, about 85 miles south of San Diego via high-speed hovercraft.

Those that bankrolled this deadly trip were Muslim extremists. But this boat crew knows no religion other than gold.

Well-paid by their suppliers, they enjoy several rounds of the finest tequila Ensenada can offer, and a few other diversions, before slipping away to Chile, never to be brought to justice.

Observations

This outcome does not spring from the realm of fiction.

In May, 1999, during the NATO bombing of the former Yugoslavia, high-ranking Russian officials meeting with a U.S. delegation to discuss the Balkans conflict raised the notion of an EMP attack that would paralyze the United States.

That’s according to a report of a commission to assess the threat to the United States from an EMP attack, which was submitted to the U.S. Congress in 2004. But Russia is not alone in this threat or in this capability.

Wes Dupont, vice president and general counsel, Allied World Assurance Company

North Korea also has the capability and the desire, according to experts, and there is speculation that recent rocket launches by that country are dress rehearsals to detonate a nuclear device in our atmosphere and carry out an EMP attack on the United States.

The first defense against such an attack is our missile defense. But some experts believe this country is ill-equipped to defend against this sort of scenario.

“In terms of risk mitigation, if an event like this happens, then that means the best risk mitigation we have has already failed, which would be our military defense systems, because the terrorists have already launched their weapon, and it’s already exploded,” said Wes Dupont, a vice president and general counsel with the Allied World Assurance Company.

The U.S power grid is relatively unprotected against EMP blasts, Dupont said.

And a nuclear blast is the worst that can occur. There isn’t much mitigation that’s been done because many methods are unproven, and it’s expensive, he added.

Lloyd’s and others have studied coronal mass ejections, solar superstorms that would produce a magnetic field that could enter our atmosphere and wipe out our grid.  Scientists believe that an EMP attack would carry a force far greater than any coronal mass ejection that has ever been measured.

An extended blackout, with some facilities taking years to return to full functionality, is a scenario that no society on earth is ready for.

“Traditional scenarios only assume blackouts for a few days and losses seem to be moderate …” wrote executives with Allianz in a 2011 paper outlining risk management options for power blackout risks.

“If an event like this happens, then that means the best risk mitigation we have has already failed … because the terrorists have already launched their weapon, and it’s already exploded.” — Wes Dupont, vice president and general counsel, Allied World Assurance Company

“But if we are considering longer-lasting blackouts, which are most likely from space weather or coordinated cyber or terrorist attacks, the impacts to our society and economy might be significant,” the Allianz executives wrote.

“Critical infrastructure such as communication and transport would be hampered,” the Allianz executives wrote.

“The heating and water supply would stop, and production processes and trading would cease. Emergency services like fire, police or ambulance could not be called due to the breakdown of the telecommunications systems. Hospitals would only be able to work as long as the emergency power supply is supplied with fuel. Financial trading, cash machines and supermarkets in turn would have to close down, which would ultimately cause a catastrophic scenario,” according to Allianz.

It would cost tens of billions to harden utility towers in this country so that they wouldn’t be rendered inoperable by ground-induced currents. That may seem like a lot of money, but it’s really not when we think about the trillion dollars or more in damages that could result from an EMP attack, not to mention the loss of life.

Allianz estimates that when a blackout is underway, financial trading institutions, for example, suffer losses of more than $6 million an hour; telecommunications companies lose about $30,000 per minute, according to the Allianz analysis.

Insurers, of course, would be buffeted should a rogue actor pull off this attack.

Lou Gritzo, vice president and manager of research, FM Global

“Depending on the industries and the locations that are affected, it could really change the marketplace, insurers and reinsurers as well,” said Lou Gritzo, a vice president and manager of research at FM Global.

Gritzo said key practices to defend against this type of event are analyzing supply chains to establish geographically diverse supplier options and having back-up systems for vital operations.

The EMP commission of 2004 argued that the U.S. needs to be vigilant and punish with extreme prejudice rogue entities that are endeavoring to obtain the kind of weapon that could be used in an attack like this.

It also argued that we need to protect our critical infrastructure, carry out research to better understand the effects of such an attack, and create a systematic recovery plan. Understanding the condition of critical infrastructure in the wake of an attack and being able to communicate it will be key, the commission argued.

The commission pointed to a blackout in the Midwest in 2003, in which key system operators did not have an alarm system and had little information on the changing condition of their assets as the blackout unfolded.

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The commission’s point is that we have the resources to defend against this scenario. But we must focus on the gravity of the threat and employ those resources.

Our interconnected society and the steady increase in technology investment only magnify this risk on a weekly basis.

“Our vulnerability is increasing daily as our use of and dependence on electronics continues to grow,” the EMP commission members wrote back in 2004.

But “correction is feasible and well within the nation’s means and resources to accomplish,” the commission study authors wrote. &

Dan Reynolds is editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance. He can be reached at [email protected]