Black Swans

Welcome to the ARkStorm

A 45-day superstorm floods California and dishes out economic catastrophe.   
By: | August 3, 2015 • 9 min read

The rain starts from light gray skies with modest winds. California farmers desperate for water look up from their work and raise their faces to the sky, thankful for the drops of moisture on their faces.

What the grateful farmers don’t know is that jets of warm, moist air that originated over the North Pacific have formed a massive storm system — what scientists call an atmospheric river — that is getting set to dump catastrophic amounts of precipitation on California.

First the rain comes in spurts. Then it pours and pours and keeps on pouring.

It’s more than enough to water parched almond trees and cotton fields. It’s enough to wipe those groves and fields away.

The story is that Noah built an ark to survive rain that fell for 40 days and 40 nights. This is what happens here and then some. No exaggeration.

Week after week, the rain comes relentlessly. After three weeks of solid rain, accompanied by hurricane-force winds, much of the state’s infrastructure and its flood control systems start to give way.

Advertisement




California’s first responders and flood control systems are prepared for storm and flood events that might come every couple of hundred years at maximum. They are not prepared for this.

The first major landslide — the first of tens of thousands — occurs at the picturesque community of Fort Bragg on the Mendocino Coast, where dozens of properties are crushed on the ocean side rocks below the town’s cliffs.

Soon, the news media report that the levees that hold back the Sacramento River from businesses and residents in the area’s delta towns are failing. Evacuations are hampered by flooded roads.

A video produced for the U.S. Geological Survey depicts a hypothethical but scientifically plausible storm impacting California.

Flooding swamps San Francisco, Los Angeles and heavily populated San Diego and Orange counties. The state’s capital, Sacramento, suffers a repeat of what it went through in 1861, when its streets were impassable and the governor had to be transported to his inauguration by boat.

The van of a family trying to drive away from the town of Pittsburg in the Sacramento River delta is swept into the surging river. A young couple and their three children are lost.

Dozens of migrant farm workers in California’s Central Valley are drowned before anyone knows they’re gone. They owned no vehicles in which to make their escape. As usual, it’s the poor who suffer the worst.

Flood waters in the Central Valley are at 10 feet and rising and will crest at 20 feet. It won’t be long before the valley is an inland lake 300 miles long and 20 miles wide. Floating on the surface of that massive lake are the bloated, decaying carcasses of thousands of cattle, poultry and swine, swept out of the largest agricultural center in the country and drowned by the storm.

Interstate 5 within the state is under water. Trucks bearing tens of millions in retail goods can’t get where they need to go. It will be weeks before I-5 is passable and it will require millions of dollars in repairs.

The ocean movement from the storm takes many of Southern California’s most treasured structures and smashes them.

The gorgeous terra cotta-roofed seaside racetrack grandstand at Del Mar — founded by Bing Crosby and some of his friends — is heavily damaged by the sea. The piers at Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach and Venice Beach are torn to pieces.

The flooding overwhelms coastal wastewater plants. Those residents who live along the concrete-lined Los Angeles River who weren’t forced out by the rain are driven out by sewage, as it erupts out of hundreds of manholes, turning the manmade river into a giant sewer.

The Terminal Island pumping station located between San Pedro and Long Beach is cut off by the floods. Abandoned by its 70-plus employees, raw sewage spews from it and runs untreated into the Pacific Ocean.

Chastened by its failures during the flooding in New Orleans after Katrina, the federal government moves much more quickly than it did in 2005 to support overwhelmed local and state emergency responders.

National Guardsmen and U.S. Army soldiers can help evacuate residents and hoist sandbags. They can’t, however, offer financial disaster recovery assistance.

As a result of this 45-day storm, there is more than $400 billion in property damage and an additional $325 billion in business interruption losses.

No more than $30 billion is recoverable through private or public insurance.

When the waters recede, more than 170 California cities and towns are insolvent, unable to cover the costs of the services they required and hamstrung by drastically reduced property and income tax collections.

Deaths number in the thousands.

The state’s agricultural economy, once the biggest in the world and already damaged by years of drought, teeters on collapse.

Goodbye Disneyland. Goodbye Rodeo Drive.

Welcome to the ARkStorm.R8-15p22-24_01ArkStorm3.indd

The Modeling

What we describe is no apocalyptic fantasy. Rain and wind in these amounts came to California in December of 1861 and didn’t leave until the following February.

Geologists studying ocean sedimentation off of the coast of California determined that atmospheric rivers have dropped this much rain on California — or more — on at least six occasions.

The most muscular academic research in this area of catastrophe modeling is that done by the U.S. Geologic Survey’s Multi-Hazard Demonstration Project (MHDP), a multi-discipline effort involving more than 100 scientists, consultants and public sector officials.

Advertisement




As we described above, the ARkStorm that the project modeled in 2010 would produce more than $700 billion in property and business interruption losses.

“All of these scenarios are scientifically plausible,” said Dale Cox, the project manager for the USGS Science Application for Risk Reduction, the successor organization of the MHDP. Cox co-founded the MHDP and oversaw the ARkStorm scenario.

“They are not worst case scenarios but they are in general low probability, extreme events. We’re trying to create them so that they will be accepted. If it’s too big, people are going to blow it off and nobody is going to do anything about it,” Cox said.

To create the ARkStorm scenario, the team of scientists under Cox’s direction took the science used for studying earthquake trench faults — looking at where offsets in the fault occurred with carbon dating — and applied that to the deltas and marshes of California’s coast line.

R8-15p22-24_01ArkStorm3.indd

Laurie Johnson, founder, Laurie Johnson Consulting

What they deduced from that geologic evidence is that atmospheric rivers —  massive storms that collect huge amounts of water from the atmosphere over the Pacific and pour it on California — have occurred and could well occur again.

“The metaphor I like to use is that it’s like turning on a fire hose and pointing it at California and moving it up and down California’s coast line,” said Laurie Johnson of San Rafael, Calif.-based Laurie Johnson Consulting. She previously worked at Risk Management Solutions, the modeling firm.

Prasad Gunturi, the lead for North America-related CAT modeling research and evaluation at Willis Re, said a recent scientific report likened an atmospheric river to taking all of the water in the Amazon River and dumping it in California’s Central Valley.

For this project, Johnson focused on long-term recovery implications. Willis Re’s Gunturi pitched in on economic loss analysis.

“The whole purpose of loss modeling is to come up with a risk management strategy. So if we know what we know now, what could we do and what would be the best investment to make now,” Johnson said.

To model the amount of wind, storm surge and flooding that accompanies an ARkStorm, Cox’s team “stitched” together data from two separate storms: a winter storm that affected predominantly Southern California in 1969, and a 1986 storm that impacted predominantly Northern California.

The team also mapped, for the first time ever, what it would look like if the entire state flooded.

“The whole purpose of loss modeling is to come up with a risk management strategy. So if we know what we know now, what could we do and what would be the best investment to make now.” — Laurie Johnson, founder, Laurie Johnson Consulting

“The team had to build that from scratch,” Johnson said. “Team members worked with FEMA and the state department of water resources to develop a statewide hydrology model and figure out how flooding progressed across river systems and through time statewide,” Johnson said.

Legacies

Using trench analysis carbon dating to study California’s storm history is one of the project’s legacies.

Advertisement




Bringing the term ARkStorm into public consciousness is another. “It’s something you hear quite commonly now with the media and the weather media. Not because we did it, but … it was a new concept,” Johnson said.

The ARkStorm scenario also showed California’s emergency responders that they were going to have to look at flooding in a whole new way.

Here was a statewide event they had never considered before.

“Central California was once a large inland sea with very low elevations in many spots. I knew that from my geoscience background,” Johnson said.

“But I don’t think people appreciated that in 1861-1862, flooding basically closed the capital, Sacramento; the whole Central Valley became a lake for more than three months. It took more than three months to drain the city,” she said.

“Nobody had looked at the statewide flows,” Cox said.

“California has really good flood fighters. We have really good emergency responders. We are looking at a scenario that would challenge them and that is what we’re trying to do,” Cox said.

Since the ARkStorm report was produced, Cox and some of his teammates have taken its hydrology and meteorology science and applied it at local levels. They’ve presented an ARkStorm scenario to officials in Ventura County.

“It was a really eye-opening experience for them,” Cox said.

Cox has also produced a study, published in January, detailing what would happen to the Lake Tahoe community in the event of an ARkStorm.

Look at these two factors alone.

One: That community takes its drinking water out of Lake Tahoe, untreated for the most part.

Two: Tahoe’s sewage treatment facilities are mostly at lake level. Should an ARkStorm strike, pumping that sewage out of the basin would become impossible.

Also, take into account that the workers who operate those sewage plants live on the other side of the mountain ridges, in more modest communities.

Advertisement




The snow from an ARkStorm would stop them from getting to their jobs.

“We often talk about The Big One  [a big earthquake on the San Andreas Fault]; this is a bigger event,” said Anne Wein, an operations research analyst with the U.S. Geological Survey based in Menlo Park, Calif.

“What struck me was the evacuation being similar in size to a hurricane. We forget that this can happen in California,” Wein said.

BlackBar

Additional 2015 Black Swan coverage:

R8-15p26-28_02Bomb.inddTo Clean Up a Dirty Fight

A dirty bomb detonated in Manhattan could make a ghost town of the most populous city in the U.S.

R8-15p30-32_03Carrington.inddThe Darkness of the Sun

A fast-moving geomagnetic storm blasts the North American power grid, leaving a large swath of the Northeastern U.S. temporarily uninhabitable.

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

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Catastrophe Risk

Material Resiliency

New materials, methods and ideas are empowering property owners to rein in their catastrophe risks.
By: | October 12, 2017 • 11 min read

The 2017 hurricane season is one for the record books. Rebuilding efforts are underway, with builders working to make insureds whole again as soon as possible … at least until the next storm comes along.

Advertisement




And therein lies the problem with recovery in disaster-prone regions. It evokes the oft-quoted definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

So what if we did it differently? What if instead of rebuilding to make structures “like new,” we rebuilt to make them better, more resilient, less prone to damage?

The reality is, we don’t really have a choice. Climate change is ushering in weather systems that are increasingly volatile. Wildfires are raging like never before. Sea-level rise is threatening our coasts, and there’s no way to dial any of it back.

Nevertheless, people will continue to build homes and businesses along the coast. Real estate developers will continue to nestle luxury homes into wooded foothills.

That means communities need to come to terms with the risk and plan for it intelligently.

Michael Brown, vice president and property manager, Golden Bear Insurance

“Natural disasters are going to happen,” said Michael Brown, vice president and property manager with Golden Bear Insurance. “But if we plan and build communities around the idea that something bad may happen someday, then that community can bounce back faster afterward.”

In any natural disaster, he added, “the property damage is extreme. But the biggest portion of the losses, both insured and uninsured, are the time element pieces. How long was the business closed? How long were homeowners unable to occupy their homes? Those are the pieces that drag on for months — years in some    cases — and really drive the economic loss.”

That’s the motivation behind new materials, designs and strategies being implemented in the construction and repair of at-risk residential and commercial properties.

Powerful Flood Solutions

Newer building products move the needle significantly in terms of efficacy.

For new or restored structures in flood-prone regions, Georgia Pacific produces gypsum panels that incorporate fiberglass mats instead of paper facings and comply with the latest FEMA requirements for flood damage resistance and mold resistance. Wall boards made from magnesium oxide (MgO) don’t absorb water at all and have the added benefits of being environmentally friendly and non-flammable.

In the UK, advanced flood-resilient structures built with water-resilient concrete-block partitions are being fitted with not only MgO wallboards, but also wood-look porcelain or ceramic flooring that’s non-permeable and fire-resistant — without sacrificing aesthetics. Drains are installed in the flooring, along with sub-flooring gullies and submersible pumps that push the water back outside. Outlets and appliance motors are all situated above expected flood levels. Doors are equipped with sliding flood panels.

In the event of flooding that exceeds a depth of two feet, automatic opening window panels (flood inlets) are triggered by sensors to allow flood water to enter the property slowly, to reduce external pressure that could damage the structure.

Carl Solly, vice president and chief engineer, FM Global

Controlled inflow buys time for a homeowner to raise furniture up on blocks, or for a business owner to raise pallets of goods up to higher shelves or move equipment to a higher elevation.

Water intrusion is reduced dramatically, and even when it happens, there is little to no damage. Water is pushed into the floor drains, surfaces are allowed to dry, and then it’s back to business as usual in days rather than months — likely with no insurance claim filed.

Dramatic improvements are happening on this side of the pond as well. For entities that need permanent on-site flood solutions, barriers like flood gates and retractable flood walls are the most sophisticated they’ve ever been.

After suffering $4 billion in damage during Superstorm Sandy, New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority invested heavily in flexible fabric flood panels that are made with Kevlar® and can be unrolled quickly and easily. Additional flood gates hinged to air grates are passively activated by the weight of incoming water entering the grates.

Advertisement




The transit authority is also testing a prototype “resilient tunnel plug” — essentially a giant air bag that can be deployed quickly to seal off sections of subway tunnel. The plug is designed to withstand not only flood but also biochemical attack.

Even temporary solutions are leaps and bounds beyond the days when sandbagging was typically the best option. New as-needed barrier methods include inflatable bladders that can be placed around a building’s perimeter and filled with water to keep floodwater and flood debris at bay.

“People have always said, ‘Well, I’m in a flood plain, it’s inevitable. It’s an act of God,’ ” said Carl Solly, vice president and chief engineer, FM Global. “In the last several years, we’ve really been trying to deliver the message that you can do something about your flood risk.”

Shake, Pummel and Burn

Flood is far from the only problem benefiting from smart engineering. FM Global is working with manufacturers to develop and certify roofing material designed to better withstand the localized hailstorms that often plague southeastern and midwestern states.

Current materials rated for severe hail can withstand hailstones up to 1 ¾ inches in diameter. The new product, rated for “very severe” hail can tolerate hailstones up to 2 ½ inches. The difference sounds small, but it’s far from it.

“It’s about three times the amount of impact energy when it hits the roof [compared to a 1 ¾ hailstone],” explained Solly. “That’s a big difference.”

As for “bouncing back” after a catastrophic fire, Solly said that’s a fairly tall order. But even there, technology is helping to reduce the severity of fires so that disruption is minimal.

FM Global researchers recently pioneered the concept of SMART sprinklers — shorthand for Simultaneous Monitoring and Assessment Response Technology — which can sense a fire earlier than traditional systems and activate targeted sprinkler heads when needed and shut off once the fire is out.

“You’ll catch it with less water, so from a water usage perspective, a water damage perspective and a smoke damage perspective, we think that has an opportunity to be a big difference-maker in the fire protection industry, particular with high-challenge fires,” said Solly.

“You’ve got a better chance of stopping what normally would be a really tough fire to catch.”

In addition, added Brown, smarter sprinkler systems, much like burglar alarms, could be programmed to notify the fire department instantly, even when a structure is unoccupied.

For earthquake risk, said Brown, resilient building efforts are less about new materials than they are about more strategic ways of using traditional materials.

“Here in California we wrap homes in stucco around the wood frame to help the whole building move as a unit. Stucco is concrete so it does crack. I end up with a building that’s got some cosmetic damage … but you don’t have to rebuild the building. It does its job in terms of absorbing a lot of the ground motion before it pushes the building beyond its design tolerances.”

Using stronger, larger steel brackets where the walls meet the roof or the floor or each other, said Brown, “keeps the north wall from moving in one direction while the west wall moves a different direction.”

Those kinds of stress points can push modest earthquake damage to catastrophic levels, he said.

One earthquake innovation still in the beta phase is a project out of the U.C. Berkeley Seismological lab, using the accelerometers in smartphones as virtual seismometers. Participating phones have an app that detects certain types of ground motion. As phones pick up earthquake wave patterns, they ping the server which checks nearby smartphones to see if they sensed the same pattern, all in microseconds. If an earthquake pattern can be confirmed, an alarm will be sent to every cellphone within a logical radius.

That might only buy people an extra two to five minutes before the event, said Brown, “but if you are the operators of Bay Area Rapid Transit commuter trains, that’s enough time to slow all the trains down to five miles an hour. If you are Google, that’s enough time to park a bunch of hard drives in your server farm so that they’re better able to resist shaking and not be damaged too badly.”

Raising Standards

Cost, of course, will impact the take-up of resilient materials and tools. If it’s three times more expensive to build a home out of the resilient materials, a lot of builders aren’t going to want to because the home will be tougher to sell.

Advertisement




FM Global’s Approvals division tests and certifies a variety of products aimed at mitigating disaster peril. That can help increase property owner confidence in these materials, particularly for commercial structures.

“When you’re betting millions of dollars and the future of your business — or at least the near-term future of your business — you really need to know that it’s going to work,” said Solly.

With just-in-time manufacturing, a company may have a few days’ worth of stock on hand rather than three months’ worth.

“So you can’t afford to be out of business for weeks, because your customers are going to go somewhere else for your product,” he said.

Building standards and codes can help drive adoption of resilient measures in both commercial and residential construction. But more work needs to be done to raise standards to meet the goal of resilience.

Effecting real resilience is something leaders across the spectrum should be talking about, including brokers and carriers, government and research agencies, building products manufacturers, and corporate executives.

If lives are saved in an earthquake, but a building is still damaged to the point where it needs to be torn down, said Brown “that building owner, that community, is going to have a much longer path to full recovery. We want the building codes strengthened to an immediate occupancy [goal] — we want people to be able to move right back into that building so there’s a much shorter window of disruption.

“It’s certainly better for me as the insurer,” he said, “but it’s even better for the guy that owns the building or runs his business out of it because now his employees still have a place to come to work and they can still get paid.”

Every single business able to minimize its downtime in this way helps the entire community be more resilient, he added. It creates that snowball effect in a good way. When businesses are able to stay open or reopen quickly, he said, workers don’t lose a meaningful amount of pay. Everybody’s in a better position to continue shopping and supporting the local economy.

“If you just shorten the line of people who are looking for some sort of federal aid, or state aid because they’ve had a massive financial disaster — maybe we can turn those into moderate to small financial disasters. That’s the key, I think, to communities being more resilient.”

Driving Demand

As the likelihood increases that property owners will experience a second loss or even third loss, some insurers are looking at ways to invest in resilience — a smarter long-term business plan than paying to rebuild again and again.

One new initiative is Lex Flood Ready, the product of a partnership between Lexington Insurance and The Flood Insurance Agency (TFIA). Flood Ready is a coverage enhancement for Lexington Private Market Flood clients that will not only indemnify property owners that suffer flood damage but will also provide the funds to rebuild them to a higher standard of resiliency when replacing floors and walls.

Advertisement




Resilience proponents advocate a variety of approaches to encourage take-up, including tax credits, resilience grants, insurance incentives and other partnerships, as well as encouraging lenders to engage borrowers by making the flood risk assessments part of the mortgage process.

A certification scheme similar to LEED could also help drive resilience efforts. The UK is currently beta-testing a certification program called Home Quality Mark, developed by the Building Research Establishment (BRE). Properties are rated on stringent criteria that considers not just disaster resilience, but energy performance and cost, durability and environmental impact.

“Getting people from diverse perspectives thinking about it and talking about it is going to be the avenue to finding the right answers.” — Michael Brown, VP and property manager, Golden Bear Insurance

That’s something builders would be able to use to add value to their properties, offsetting the cost of building in resilience and driving consumer demand for properties built to the highest standards.

With increased resilience will come questions for insurers, said Brown. “It will open up a can of worms.”

It will create something of an arms race among insurance companies, he said. “Who’s going to be the first one to figure out what’s the right way to insure that? What’s the right price? What are the right terms and conditions?” Admittedly, it’s a good problem to have.

Effecting real resilience is something leaders across the spectrum should be talking about, including brokers and carriers, government and research agencies, building products manufacturers, and corporate executives.

“Getting people from diverse perspectives thinking about it and talking about it is going to be the avenue to finding the right answers,” said Brown.

“That kind of mentality top to bottom in the industry is going to be necessary. It’s not the first time we’ve dealt with disruptive things and we will continue doing it. It’s what keeps the game interesting.” &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]