Flood Risk

Protecting Dam Breach Inundation Zones

Dam failures are a ‘low probability but high consequence’ event best addressed by preparation and maintenance.
By: | February 28, 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.

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.

“There has to be a more robust conversation around flood.” — John Dickson president, NFS Edge Insurance Agency

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 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, risk control manager, Trident Public Risk Solutions

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 even more alarming.

“The average age of our dams nationwide is 56 years,” he says. “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.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency says dam failures are a “low probability but high consequence” event.

Since they rarely occur, 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 the 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.

“With a dam breach, when it fails, it fails quickly, the water comes out quickly and there’s a limited amount of time.” — Dr. Louis Gritzo, vice president and manager of research, FM Global.

But when it finally did, the emergency response — mass evacuations and helicopters conducting air drops of dirt and boulders to fortify the dam —averted a catastrophe.  But it also was an expense way beyond the cost of maintenance.

Perhaps most alarming, not all people received the emergency notification when the evacuation was called, 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, 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 2013 report. The next report is due March 9, and there is no expectation for a major shift in that grade. The Army Corps of Engineers estimated it would currently take $24 billion to fix all dams that need repairs.

State agencies regulate most of the nation’s 84,000 dams. Unlike bridges and roads, the U.S. government may inspect the dams but they don’t maintain most of them. More than 65 percent are privately owned and those owners may lack the money needed for adequate maintenance.

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

Experts say dam owners need to know how their structures are aging and prepare for the repairs that need to be done. Develop a timeline for a replacement and how to respond if the dam fails.

“We’re chasing an aging population,” said Louis Gritzo, vice president and manager of research with FM Global.

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

“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 said he discusses with clients 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. For that reason, an emergency response plan is needed to lay out how much time is 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 a very good hazard assessment 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 determines where the water might go and how much flooding might occur when it gets there.

As of 2015, a quarter of dams designated “high hazard” don’t have an EAP.

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 of water and there’s much fewer protection measures available.

The risk manager that is associated with the facility needs to know the risk exposure, how to react and who to contact in an emergency.

As of 2012, there were 13,991 dams classified as “high hazard,” up 3,000 from a decade earlier.

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” don’t have an EAP. Sometimes, the owners don’t even know they are labeled high hazard, McCarty said.

Risk managers should contact the authority or municipality that creates the EAP to start an 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.

John Dickson president, NFS Edge Insurance Agency

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

“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 prepare to address the ongoing maintenance that is 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: Marine

Crewless Ships Raise Questions

Is a remote operator legally a master? New technology confounds old terms.
By: | March 5, 2018 • 6 min read

For many developers, the accelerating development of remote-controlled and autonomous ships represents what could be the dawn of a new era. For underwriters and brokers, however, such vessels could represent the end of thousands of years of maritime law and risk management.

Rod Johnson, director of marine risk management, RSA Global Risk

While crewless vessels have yet to breach commercial service, there are active testing programs. Most brokers and underwriters expect small-scale commercial operations to be feasible in a few years, but that outlook only considers technical feasibility. How such operations will be insured remains unclear.

“I have been giving this a great deal of thought, this sits on my desk every day,” said Rod Johnson, director of marine risk management, RSA Global Risk, a major UK underwriter. Johnson sits on the loss-prevention committee of the International Union of Maritime Insurers.

“The agreed uncertainty that underpins marine insurance is falling away, but we are pretending that it isn’t. The contractual framework is being made less relevant all the time.”

Defining Autonomous Vessels

Two types of crewless vessels are being contemplated. First up is a drone with no one on board but actively controlled by a human at a remote command post on land or even on another vessel.

While some debate whether the controllers of drone aircrafts are pilots or operators, the very real question yet to be addressed is if a vessel controller is legally a “master” under maritime law.


The other type of crewless vessel would be completely autonomous, with the onboard systems making decisions about navigation, weather and operations.

Advocates tout the benefits of larger cargo capacity without crew spaces, including radically different hull designs without decks people can walk on. Doubters note a crew can fix things at sea while a ship cannot.

Rolls-Royce is one of the major proponents and designers. The company tested a remote-controlled tug in Copenhagen in June 2017.

“We think the initial early adopters will be vessels operating on fixed routes within coastal waters under the jurisdiction of flag states,” the company said.

“We expect to see the first autonomous vessel in commercial operation by the end of the decade. Further out, around 2025, we expect autonomous vessels to operate further from shore — perhaps coastal cargo ships. For ocean-going vessels to be autonomous, it will require a change in international regulations, so this will take longer.”

Once autonomous ships are a reality, “the entire current legal framework for maritime law and insurance is done,” said Johnson. “The master has not been replaced; he is just gone. Commodity ships (bulk carriers) would be most amenable to that technology. I’m not overly bothered by fully automated ships, but I am extremely bothered by heavily automated ones.”

He cited two risks specifically: hacking and fire.

“We expect to see the first autonomous vessel in commercial operation by the end of the decade. Further out, around 2025, we expect autonomous vessels to operate further from shore — perhaps coastal cargo ships. For ocean-going vessels to be autonomous, it will require a change in international regulations, so this will take longer.” — Rolls-Royce Holdings study

Andrew Kinsey, senior marine risk consultant, Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty, asked an even more existential question: “From an insurance standpoint, are we even still talking about a vessel as it is under law? Starting with the legal framework, the duty of a flag state is ‘manning of ships.’ What about the duty to render assistance? There cannot be insurance coverage of an illegal contract.”

Several sources noted that the technological development of crewless ships, while impressive, seems to be a solution in search of a problem. There is no known need in the market; no shippers, operators, owners or mariners advocate that crewless ships will solve their problems.

Kinsey takes umbrage at the suggestion that promotional material on crewless vessels cherry picks his company’s data, which found 75 percent to 90 percent of marine losses are caused by human error.


“Removing the humans from the vessels does not eliminate the human error. It just moves the human error from the helm to the coder. The reports on development by the companies with a vested interest [in crewless vessels] tend to read a lot like advertisements. The pressure for this is not coming from the end users.”

To be sure, Kinsey is a proponent of automation and technology when applied prudently, believing automation can make strides in areas of the supply chains. Much of the talk about automation is trying to bury the serious shortage of qualified crews. It also overshadows the very real potential for blockchain technology to overhaul the backend of marine insurance.

As a marine surveyor, Kinsey said he can go down to the wharf, inspect cranes, vessels and securements, and supervise loading and unloading — but he can’t inspect computer code or cyber security.

New Times, New Risks

In all fairness, insurance language has changed since the 17th century, especially as technology races ahead in the 21st.

“If you read any hull form, it’s practically Shakespearean,” said Stephen J. Harris, senior vice president of marine protection UK, Marsh. “The language is no longer fit for purpose. Our concern specifically to this topic is that the antiquated language talks about crew being on board. If they are not on board, do they still legally count as crew?”

Harris further questioned, “Under hull insurance, and provided that the ship owner has acted diligently, cover is extended to negligence of the master or crew. Does that still apply if the captain is not on board but sitting at a desk in an office?”

Andrew Kinsey, senior marine risk consultant, Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty

Several sources noted that a few international organizations, notably the Comite Maritime International and the International Maritime Organization, “have been very active in asking the legal profession around the world about their thoughts. The interpretations vary greatly. The legal complications of crewless vessels are actually more complicated than the technology.”

For example, if the operational, insurance and regulatory entities in two countries agree on the voyage of a crewless vessel across the ocean, a mishap or storm could drive the vessel into port or on shore of a third country that does not recognize those agreements.

“What worries insurers is legal uncertainty,” said Harris.

“If an operator did everything fine but a system went down, then most likely the designer would be responsible. But even if a designer explicitly accepted responsibility, what matters would be the flag state’s law in international waters and the local state’s law in territorial waters.


“We see the way ahead for this technology as local and short-sea operations. The law has to catch up with the technology, and it is showing no signs of doing so.”

Thomas M. Boudreau, head of specialty insurance, The Hartford, suggested that remote ferry operations could be the most appropriate use: “They travel fixed routes, all within one country’s waters.”

There could also be environmental and operational benefits from using battery power rather than conventional fuels.

“In terms of underwriting, the burden would shift to the manufacturer and designer of the operating systems,” Boudreau added.

It may just be, he suggested, that crewless ships are merely replacing old risks with new ones. Crews can deal with small repairs, fires or leaks at sea, but small conditions such as those can go unchecked and endanger the whole ship and cargo.

“The cyber risk is also concerning. The vessel may be safe from physical piracy, but what about hacking?” &

Gregory DL Morris is an independent business journalist based in New York with 25 years’ experience in industry, energy, finance and transportation. He can be reached at [email protected]