Natural Catastrophe

Quake Early Warning Systems Advance

The U.S. Geological Survey is funding the development of the next generation of earthquake early warning systems.
By: | September 7, 2016 • 4 min read

The recent catastrophic earthquake in central Italy once again brings attention to the concept of an earthquake early warning system — a technology that can give people a precious few seconds to stop what they’re doing and take protective actions before the severe shaking waves from an earthquake arrive.

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To try to improve an existing (in development) U.S.-based warning system, ShakeAlert, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) recently awarded $3.7 million to six universities to support transitioning ShakeAlert into a full-blown production system.

According to USGS, the schools involved are the California Institute of Technology, Central Washington University, University of California, Berkeley, University of Oregon, University of Washington and University of Nevada, Reno.

In development for a decade, this impending ShakeAlert “upgrade” emphasizes the use of real-time GPS observations. Typical earthquake early warning systems use seismic data, which is not as effective as GPS technology in many cases.

The project’s goal: rapidly detect potentially damaging earthquakes, more thoroughly test the warning system, and improve its performance. In addition, they will upgrade the networks and construct new seismic and geodetic sensors to improve the speed and reliability of the warnings.

“Local seismic networks have a tough time discriminating between large [M6] and very large [M7-9] earthquakes in real-time, whereas the GPS does not, assuming one has instruments nearby the earthquake and can keep them alive and transmitting thereafter,” said Tim Melbourne, a geological sciences professor and director of the PANGA Geodesy Laboratory at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Wash.

Earthquake Doug Given 230x300

Doug Given, Earthquake Early Warning coordinator, Caltech Seismological Lab

According to Doug Given, Earthquake Early Warning coordinator at the Caltech Seismological Lab in Pasadena, Calif., the USGS and its partners began sending live alerts to beta users in January of 2012. In February 2016, it rolled-out the next-generation ShakeAlert early warning test system in California.

USGS plans to begin sending limited public alerts by 2018 in areas where station coverage is sufficient and public educations and training has been introduced. Full operation will not be possible until full funding is secured to complete, maintain, and operate the system.

“Recording real-time, high-precision GPS ground motions is an emerging technology,” he said. “GPS sensors can stay on scale and more accurately measure large displacements of the ground during very large earthquakes, say greater than magnitude 7.”

Given cited the M9.0 Japanese earthquake in 2010. The Japanese earthquake warning system, which only uses seismic data, “saturated” at M8.1, resulting in an underestimation of the resulting ground motions.

“GPS sensors can stay on scale and more accurately measure large displacements of the ground during very large earthquakes, say greater than magnitude 7.” — Doug Given, Earthquake Early Warning coordinator, Caltech Seismological Lab

“Studies done after the earthquake have shown that a better magnitude estimate results by including GPS data,” Given said.

Would ShakeAlert, operating at full production, have an impact on commercial insurance? It’s highly possible, according to experts.

Earthquake Michael Pinsel Headshot 230x300

Michael Pinsel, partner, Insurance and Financial Services group, Sidley Austin LLP

“We welcome public investments into the mitigation of earthquake risks in California, as it contributes to a more resilient society,” said Andrew Castaldi, SVP and head of catastrophe perils, Americas, with Swiss Re. “Ample warning time of a pending natural disaster is vital to saving lives.”

Castaldi explained that with meteorological events, many of which are slow moving, experts can predict and warn with a degree of accuracy — days, hours, or minutes beforehand. This keeps fatalities down in relation to property damage.

But earthquakes, and their potential for devastation, and can happen at any time, day or night.

“Early warning systems provide valuable seconds before the ground begins to shake,” he said. “Even a few seconds’ warning will provide time for first responders to prepare, for trains to decelerate, for gas pipe shutoff valves to be closed, for example. Moreover, early warning can save lives by giving people time to protect themselves [drop, cover, and hold].”

“Investment in early warning systems should not come at the cost of decreased investment in improving the resilience of infrastructure or lifelines and buildings throughout California.” — Andrew Castaldi, SVP and head of catastrophe perils, Americas, Swiss Re

Castaldi said that businesses and people that incorporate early warnings into their emergency preparedness plans can mitigate against potential fire, business interruption and casualty losses. He cautioned though, that even a system like ShakeAlert cannot reduce damage to a poorly designed building or a poorly secured piece of equipment, nor can it help compensate for the financial losses associated with the ensuing damages.

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“Investment in early warning systems should not come at the cost of decreased investment in improving the resilience of infrastructure or lifelines and buildings throughout California,” he said. “Early warnings, enforced building codes, and adequate post-event financing [earthquake insurance] will help us become more resilient to the next big earthquake.”

Michael Pinsel, a partner in the Insurance and Financial Services group at Sidley Austin LLP, in Chicago, said that advances in science, technology and early warning systems no doubt enhance the opportunities to improve the risk management of those who take advantage of such opportunities.

“Improvements in risk management ultimately should be reflected in lower loss costs and more efficient premium structures for protection buyers,” he said. “And improvements to sensor and telemetry infrastructure are also useful to the insurance industry, which often can develop efficient new coverages and risk-spreading products to help individual and business consumers manage their risks.”

Tom Starner is a freelance business writer and editor. He can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

High Net Worth

High Net Worth Clients Live in CAT Zones. Here’s What Their Resiliency Plan Should Include

Having a resiliency plan and practicing it can make all the difference in a disaster.
By: | September 14, 2018 • 7 min read

Packed with state-of-the-art electronics, priceless collections and high-end furnishings, and situated in scenic, often remote locations, the dwellings of high net worth individuals and families pose particular challenges when it comes to disaster resiliency. But help is on the way.

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Armed with loss data, innovative new programs, technological advances, and a growing army of niche service-providers aimed at addressing an astonishingly diverse set of risks, insurers are increasingly determined to not just insure against their high net worth clients’ losses, but to prevent them.

Insurers have long been proactive in risk mitigation, but increasingly, after the recent surge in wildfire and storm losses, insureds are now, too.

“Before, insurance was considered the only step in risk management. Now, our client families realize it is one of the many imperative steps in an effective risk management strategy,” said Laura Sherman, founding partner at Baldwin Krystyn Sherman Partners.

And especially in the high net worth space, preventing that loss is vastly preferable to a payout, for insurers and insureds alike.

“If insurers can preserve even one house that’s 10 or 20 or 40 million dollars … whatever they have spent in a year is money well spent. Plus they’ve saved this important asset for the client,” said Bruce Gendelman, chairman and founder Bruce Gendelman Insurance Services.

High Net Worth Vulnerabilities

Laura Sherman, founding partner, Baldwin Krystyn Sherman Partners

As the number and size of luxury homes built in vulnerable areas has increased, so has the frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events, including hurricanes, harsh cold and winter storms, and wildfires.

“There is a growing desire to inhabit this riskier terrain,” said Jason Metzger, SVP Risk Management, PURE group of insurance companies. “In the western states alone, a little over a million homes are highly vulnerable to wildfires because of their proximity to forests that are fuller of fuel than they have been in years past.”

Such homes are often filled with expensive artwork and collections, from fine wine to rare books to couture to automobiles, each presenting unique challenges. The homes themselves present other vulnerabilities.

“Larger, more sophisticated homes are bristling with more technology than ever,” said Stephen Poux, SVP and head of Risk Management Services and Loss Prevention for AIG’s Private Client Group.

“A lightning strike can trash every electronic in the home.”

Niche Service Providers

A variety of niche service providers are stepping forward to help.

Secure facilities provide hurricane-proof, wildfire-proof off-site storage for artwork, antiques, and all manner of collectibles for seasonal or rotating storage, as well as ahead of impending disasters.

Other companies help manage such collections — a substantial challenge anytime, but especially during a crisis.

“Knowing where it is, is a huge part of mitigating the risk,” said Eric Kahan, founder of Collector Systems, a cloud-based collection management company that allows collectors to monitor their collections during loans to museums, transit between homes, or evacuation to secure storage.

“Before, insurance was considered the only step in risk management. Now, our client families realize it is one of the many imperative steps in an effective risk management strategy.” — Laura Sherman, founding partner, Baldwin Krystyn Sherman Partners

Insurers also employ specialists in-house. AIG employs four art curators who advise clients on how to protect and preserve their art collections.

Perhaps the best known and most striking example of this kind of direct insurer involvement are the fire teams insurers retain or employ to monitor fires and even spray retardant or water on threatened properties.

High-Level Service for High Net Worth

All high net worth carriers have programs that leverage expertise, loss data, and relationships with vendors to help clients avoid and recover from losses, employing the highest levels of customer service to accomplish this as unobtrusively as possible.

“What allows you to do your job best is when you develop that relationship with a client, where it’s the same people that are interacting with them on every front for their risk management,” said Steve Bitterman, chief risk services officer for Vault Insurance.

Site visits are an essential first step, allowing insurers to assess risks, make recommendations to reduce them, and establish plans in the event of a disaster.

“When you’re in a catastrophic situation, it’s high stress, time is of the essence, and people forget things,” said Sherman. “Having a written plan in place is paramount to success.”

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Another important component is knowing who will execute that plan in homes that are often unoccupied.

Domestic staff may lack the knowledge or authority to protect the homeowner’s assets, and during a disaster may be distracted dealing with threats to their own homes and families. Adequate planning includes ensuring that whoever is responsible has the training and authority to execute the plan.

Evaluating New Technology

Insurers use technologies like GPS and satellite imagery to determine which homes are directly threatened by storms or wildfires. They also assess and vet technologies that can be implemented by homeowners, from impact glass to alarm and monitoring systems, to more obscure but potentially more important options.

AIG’s Poux recommends two types of vents that mitigate important, and unexpected risks.

“There’s a fantastic technology called Smart Vent, which allows water to flow in and out of the foundation,” Poux said. “… The weight of water outside a foundation can push a foundation wall in. If you equalize that water inside and out at the same level, you negate that.”

Another wildfire risk — embers getting sucked into the attic — is, according to Poux, “typically the greatest cause of the destruction of homes.” But, he said, “Special ember-resisting venting, like Brandguard Vents, can remove that exposure altogether.”

Building Smart

Many disaster resiliency technologies can be applied at any time, but often the cost is fractional if implemented during initial construction. AIG’s Smart Build is a free program for new or remodeled homes that evolved out of AIG’s construction insurance programs.

Previously available only to homes valued at $5 million and up, Smart Build recently expanded to include homes of $1 million and up. Roughly 100 homes are enrolled, with an average value of $13 million.

“In the high net worth space, sometimes it takes longer potentially to recover, simply because there are limited contractors available to do specialty work.” — Curt Goetsch, head of underwriting, Private Client Group, Ironshore

“We know what goes wrong in high net worth homes,” said Poux, citing AIG’s decades of loss data.

“We’re incenting our client and by proxy their builder, their architects and their broker, to give us a seat at the design table. … That enables us to help tweak the architectural plans in ways that are very easy to do with a pencil, as opposed to after a home is built.”

Poux cites a remote ranch property in Texas.

Curt Goetsch, head of underwriting, Private Client Group, Ironshore

“The client was rebuilding a home but also installing new roads and grading and driveways. … The property was very far from the fire department and there wasn’t any available water on the property.”

Poux’s team was able to recommend underground water storage tanks, something that would have been prohibitively expensive after construction.

“But if the ground is open and you’ve got heavy equipment, it’s a relatively minor additional expense.”

Homes that graduate from the Smart Build program may be eligible for preferred pricing due to their added resilience, Poux said.

Recovery from Loss

A major component of disaster resiliency is still recovery from loss, and preparation is key to the prompt service expected by homeowners paying six- or seven-figure premiums.

Before Irma, PURE sent contact information for pre-assigned claim adjusters to insureds in the storm’s direct path.

“In the high net worth space, sometimes it takes longer potentially to recover, simply because there are limited contractors available to do specialty work,” said Curt Goetsch, head of underwriting for Ironshore’s Private Client Group.

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“If you’ve got custom construction or imported materials in your house, you’re not going to go down the street and just find somebody that can do that kind of work, or has those materials in stock.”

In the wake of disaster, even basic services can be scarce.

“Our claims and risk management departments have to work together in advance of the storm,” said Bitterman, “to have contractors and restoration companies and tarp and board services that are going to respond to our company’s clients, that will commit resources to us.”

And while local agents’ connections can be invaluable, Goetsch sees insurers taking more of that responsibility from the agent, to at least get the claim started.

“When there is a disaster, the agency’s staff may have to deal with personal losses,” Goetsch said. &

Jon McGoran is a novelist and magazine editor based outside of Philadelphia. He can be reached at [email protected]