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Black Swan

Raining Down Destruction

NYC asteroid strike would cause nearly 100% fatalities at ground zero.
By: | August 1, 2013 • 8 min read

When the asteroid strikes earth’s atmosphere, it is traveling at approximately 56,000 mph. At 50 meters to 60 meters wide, it is not large enough to wipe out humanity or irrevocably alter the tilt of the Earth’s axis or its orbit. But it’s going to do plenty of damage, particularly because of where it is headed: right at New York City. The asteroid, made of rock not too dissimilar from the rocks found on Earth, begins to break up nearly 200,000 feet in the atmosphere. About three miles up, or 18,800 feet, the projectile bursts into a cloud of fragments.

When it does that, it releases the power of 1,000 A-bombs — 10 megatons of TNT.

On the ground, the sound of the explosion reaches 105 decibels, enough to cause people to cover their ears in pain. That is, if the explosion’s incendiary heat and blast wave with its 500 mph winds don’t reach them first.

For residents of the metro area about 25 miles from the detonation site, the fireball looks like a second sun in the sky. The pressure from the explosion reaches them with 70 mph winds, though, wreaking havoc with homes and small business structures.

For about 19 miles surrounding the blast site, the fireball inflicts third-degree burns and ignites clothes.

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Within 10 miles — reaching into the Bronx to the northeast, Brooklyn to the south and into Queens to the west — the blast wave reaches even higher pressure. That level of pressure is enough to generate wind speeds of a Cat-5 hurricane, strong enough to raze or severely damage factories, offices and residences.

The air is filled with glass, bricks and jagged concrete, and those half of the Outer Borough residents who do not die are surely injured.

For those within 2.5 miles of the blast, the news is worse. About 17.6 seconds after the explosion, come those 500+ mph winds — arriving faster than the speed of sound. The effects of this phenomenon are not for the faint of heart to consider, but take the worst tornado stories imaginable, multiply by two, and overlay them across almost all of Manhattan.

The force tears already scorched flesh off bones and limbs from bodies. Windows and walls of buildings implode. Multistory, reinforced concrete buildings collapse. Nothing is left of wood frame buildings. Highway truss bridges collapse. Nearly every tree in Central Park is leveled. And what falls down become missiles that kill and maim.

Perhaps luckiest are those closest to ground zero. Within the first second of the detonation, the heat energy within a mile turns flesh into steam, clean to the bone. Assume near total demolition at ground zero with fatalities as good as 100 percent.

07_08_13_AsteroidChart

The Fallout

Research for creating this description included information from the Earth Impacts Effect Program sponsored by the Imperial College London and Purdue University, It also used research provided by the Nuclear Weapon Archive. In its scale and effects, an asteroid impact would be similar to a fusion bomb.

But the most relevant source for the above scenario was a research report published in 2009 by RMS, the catastrophe modeling solutions provider.

The RMS report explored a 1908 event, the Tunguska asteroid impact in Russia at its 100th anniversary. In that strike, a mid-size asteroid (about 50 meters in diameter) exploded 3 to 5 miles above the Siberian forest. It leveled trees across 770 miles, and the pressure waves generated were measurable around the world.

Eyewitnesses were few and far between, but the few recorded for history including one person who experienced the event from 40 miles out and said, “at that moment, I became so hot that I couldn’t bear it, as if my shirt was on fire.”

The modeler asked: What if this occurred above New York City?

To calculate the probable maximum loss, RMS placed the proposed Tunguska damage footprint over Manhattan. It assumed a mean damage ratio, fatality rate and injury rate within the inner footprint of destruction to be 70 percent, 50 percent and 40 percent, respectively. In the outer footprint, they were 30 percent, 2 percent and 35 percent, respectively.

Then, RMS populated its map of Manhattan with datasets for population concentrations and insured assets. As much as $760 billion in property exposure and 3.61 million people exist within the outer swath of destruction, and with the inner ring of fire and death, $1.38 trillion and 6.25 million people.

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According to RMS calculations, that translated to property losses of $1.19 trillion, 3.2 million deaths and 3.76 million injuries.

Such a biblical tally — and indeed, an asteroid impact may have caused the flood behind Noah’s ark — leads us to a question: Would property insurance companies even have to pay such a massive bill?

When a meteor exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, on Feb. 15, 2013, this question was raised. Michael Barry, vice president for media relations at the Insurance Information Institute, was quoted in Time.com as saying, at least with homeowners policies, “it’s got to be a direct hit” to trigger coverage. If an asteroid were to explode miles in the air and level everything below it, “the coverage is going to be open to interpretation.”

RMS conceded in its report that “it is unclear if, on any current contractual grounds, insurers would exclude damage caused by such a peril.”

Yet, the consensus appears to be that comprehensive commercial multiperil and all-risk policies ought to cover damage from an asteroid blast, unless specifically excluded.

“Generally, losses from the impact of meteorites or asteroids are covered in standard insurance policies. However, differences do exist from country to country,” was the simple statement put out by Munich Re after Chelyabinsk.

The Recovery

In Earth’s history, larger strikes have happened. The dinosaurs were made extinct by an asteroid that could be measures in kilometers, not meters.

If that were the case, “it’s a whole new world the next day,” said Lou Gritzo, vice president of research at insurer FM Global. It’s literally a whole new world.

That sort of impact would extend beyond the affected region and country, and have geopolitical security implications. Countries might cease to exist, let alone insurance companies.

A Tunguska-sized space rock could have ripple effects beyond the New York region, given the “brittle” economic situation in today’s over-connected financial and business worlds, Gritzo said. The word he used to describe such a threat is “reset” — to geopolitical and economic systems, but also to the well-being and daily lives of people on the East Coast and the insurance industry.

After a significant event like this, the insurance industry would be “really in ‘only the strong survive’ mode,” Gritzo said.

We can’t define “the strong” as those specifically prepared for an asteroid strike. As Robert Muir-Wood, chief research officer at RMS, explained, no one on the insurance side has a strategy to handle such an event at the moment.

Nor should they. It’s not practical to chase every Black Swan that flies under the sun.

If you’re running an insurance or reinsurance company, said Muir-Wood, you have to decide what is the risk threshold that you’re worried about and manage to that risk, so you will survive.

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“Generally,” said Hélène Galy, head of proprietary modeling, managing director, Global Analytics, at Willis and the Willis Research Network, “when we provide catastrophe modeling results to clients, for example for a flood model, they are more interested in the low return periods, which should match their recent loss experience. Typical return periods are 100 year and 250 year.”

Gritzo at FM Global said that company underwrites to the 500-year risk level and advises its clients to protect their own properties to that 0.2 percent annual probability.

The odds of a Tunguska-like event striking a major urban area — let alone the major urban area in the United States — are very high.

The frequency of rocks this size hitting Earth in any one place, however, could fit within this 500-year window. According to the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) at the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii — its purpose: to identify these rocks before they hit — “city killer” sized asteroids arrive once every few hundred years.

Given that location uncertainty but surety of occurrence, standard rules of catastrophe management apply for reinsurers and insurers. Prepare for the disaster that really scares you, and likely you will be relatively prepared when another disaster strikes.

One such rule of the “only the strong shall survive” school of thinking is diversity — away from insurance lines like property and away from concentrations of underwriting in any particular urban area or region.

“In this extreme scenario, losses would be so regional and total that a number of regional insurers would probably disappear. Reinsurers with enough diversification should survive,” said Galy.

She added, “insured losses would be dwarfed by economic losses, so it is the economy and civil society that would be most impacted.”

It would be a “reset” unlike anything we have seen.

“It would look a bit of a mess,” said Muir-Wood. The nearest historical equivalent would be the Tokyo earthquake in 1923, when the city burned and total insured losses were beyond insurance coverage.

The government then allowed insurers to pay back as much as they could without going under. In that way, it could be comparable to another recent Black Swan — the 2007-2008 financial crisis.

As long as it is still standing, the U.S. government would not sit by and let all the big insurance companies disappear, like the dinosaurs did.

Matthew Brodsky is editor of Wharton Magazine. 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]