Black Swan: Tsunami

Menace on the Horizon

The Pacific Northwest will never fully recover from this tsunami and earthquake.
By: | August 3, 2016 • 8 min read

Scenario:  Fifteen to 20 minutes.

That’s all the time that tens of thousands of coastal residents and tourists will have to escape with their lives when the Cascadia Subduction Fault ruptures. It could happen tomorrow. Or in 50 years. No one is totally sure, since there is no way to predict when earthquakes occur.

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But when the 700-mile-long fault in the Pacific Ocean that stretches just 70 miles offshore from Cape Mendocino, Calif., to Vancouver Island, British Columbia, last erupted in 1700, the earthquake-powered tsunami was so powerful it drowned a forest of 150-foot-tall spruce trees on the Oregon Coast and swamped a feudal castle in Japan.

This time, the loss of life and infrastructure damage will be worse because so many more people live in the Pacific Northwest and there is so much more to destroy.

Large sections of the coastline will drop by nearly 5 feet, and the shaking caused by the magnitude 9 earthquake will last as long as five minutes, affecting 140,000 square miles, including Seattle, Tacoma, Portland and Olympia. Aftershocks will continue for months.

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The first tsunami wave — as high as 30 to 40 feet — will bury the coastal communities in unrelenting towers of water moving about 20 mph toward the shore, and as fast as 500 mph across the ocean. About 100,000 people live and work there, but the population grows by tens of thousands during tourist season.

Roads, bridges, railways and communication structures will be destroyed. Natural gas pipelines and water systems will be heavily damaged. There will be widespread, lengthy power outages in every city within 100 miles of the coast. Undersea transpacific cables will be severed.

Fatalities will total upwards of 13,000 — many more if the tsunami occurs during a weekend beach day in tourist season.

The coastline and low-lying areas of towns west of I-5, the main interstate on the West Coast, will be wiped out from Northern California to British Columbia. Higher ground will suffer moderate to severe damage.

Wood-frame buildings should withstand the earthquake, but not the tsunami. Masonry buildings may withstand the tsunami, but not the earthquake.

Fatalities will total upwards of 13,000 — many more if the tsunami occurs during a weekend beach day in tourist season.

The region never fully recovers.

Analysis:  Total global economic losses from natural and man-made disasters in 2015 were $92 billion, according to Swiss Re. When the Cascadia Subduction Fault ruptures, that alone will be higher.

Official projections put the economic damage at $49 billion for Washington, $41 billion for British Columbia, $32 billion for Oregon and $4 billion for California, but many experts believe losses will be higher. Maybe 20 percent to 25 percent of economic losses will be insured, experts said.

Residents and small business owners usually do not have flood or earthquake protection. And standard policies for small businesses have limited coverage for business interruption, or extra expenses required to rebuild and recover.

“The basis for the panic is pretty solid. It’s not a tinfoil-hat kind of thing. We are way past the minimum from geologic records, but we are not in any sense, overdue.” — Dr. Chris Goldfinger, director, active tectonics and seafloor mapping laboratory at Oregon State University

National or regional companies may see higher payouts. As sophisticated insurance buyers, they will have higher limits for business interruption, contingent business interruption and for extra expenses. But the damage will take months and years to fix. No business can outlast that. Not if they remain in the area.

Homes and businesses on the coast will be destroyed. Plus, the entire coastline will be isolated by the tsunami’s devastation, cut off from the rest of the country.

In the bigger cities, such as Portland, Eugene and Seattle, many properties will be destroyed by the earthquake. Residents and business owners will face at least a month without electricity, several months without water, and years before bridges and major infrastructure are restored. And those are the optimistic projections.

Oregon businesses were stunned to hear it would take months and years to resume operations, said Dr. Chris Goldfinger, director, active tectonics and seafloor mapping laboratory at Oregon State University, who has been charting the frequency and severity of the zone ruptures.

“They said after a few weeks, we would have to leave,” he said. “We can’t just sit here and wait for years for bridges to be rebuilt. That was a sobering moment.”

Everyone Has a Stake

The average time between earthquakes is 400 to 500 years, Goldfinger said. It can be as short as 200 years, as long as 1,000. It’s now 315 years since the last rupture of the Cascadia Subduction Fault.

“The basis for the panic is pretty solid. It’s not a tinfoil-hat kind of thing. We are way past the minimum from geologic records, but we are not in any sense, overdue,” Goldfinger said.

“Everyone has a stake in it,” he said. “We all have a responsibility to do something.” — Jay Wilson, Clackamas County (Oregon) resilience coordinator

With bridges, highways and communication down, emergency response will be limited. Rescue efforts will have to come from outside the affected areas.

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“The people we count on the most for smaller disasters and misadventures will be victims like the rest of us,” said Goldfinger.

Like many others in the Pacific Northwest, Jay Wilson, Clackamas County (Oregon) resilience coordinator, is working to reduce the number of victims. It’s a very site-specific exercise and an overwhelming task.

“Everyone has a stake in it,” he said. “We all have a responsibility to do something.”

“A Massive Planning Effort”

To aid tsunami survivors, the construction of about 43 “vertical evacuation structures” in coastal Washington have been discussed.

Nathan Wood, research geographer, U.S. Geological Survey

Nathan Wood, research geographer, U.S. Geological Survey

The first one — a refuge on the roof above Ocosta Elementary School in Westport, Wash., will be finished soon. It will hold 700 people. A planned berm — basically a big hill — behind  an elementary School in Long Beach, Wash., will save about 600 more.

Officials and community members are also caching relief supplies on high ground near the tsunami zone so survivors will have provisions while they await rescue, said Nathan Wood, research geographer, U.S. Geological Survey.

“It’s a massive planning effort,” he said, noting that Oregon and Washington emergency managers have involved hundreds of experts, legislators, business leaders and the public in regional resilience planning.

“It will be catastrophic,” Wood said, “but we can make it more resilient. People are not burying their heads in the sand. Can they make everything perfect in one day? No. But it was really impressive how they are pulling everybody together.”

Still, Wilson said, it’s a hugely expensive proposition that will take years, and new buildings and infrastructure are still not being constructed to a higher level of resilience, such as is common in Japan and Chile, or even California, where earthquakes and tsunamis are more common.

“Until the business community starts demanding it and elected officials campaign on it, it’s still backroom conversation by a bunch of policy wonks like me saying, ‘What can we do to make this happen?’ ”

VIDEO: More than 470 Washington National Guard personnel took part in the Cascadia Rising earthquake preparedness exercise in June. Report from iFiberoneNews

That’s not to say there hasn’t been progress. In June, “Cascadia Rising 2016,” a four-day earthquake and tsunami drill began in Washington and Oregon to test emergency response measures. About 20,000 people, including the U.S. National Guard, and federal, state and local emergency responders, practiced saving lives and delivering services while testing ways to communicate with no electricity or cell service.

The region will also be getting support from the 100 Resilient Cities initiative of the Rockefeller Foundation. Seattle and Vancouver were added to the roster in May. Both will receive financial support for a chief resilience officer as well as access to best practices, service providers and partners.

Wilson had been hoping Portland would be chosen as well.

Recovery will be an immense challenge. The U.S. already has a $1.5 trillion shortfall for infrastructure maintenance, said Alex Kaplan, senior vice president, global partnerships, Swiss Re, who works with the 100 Resilient Cities initiative.

Finding the Money

“Where will the money come from?” asked Jamie Miller, head of property for North America, Swiss Re Corporate Solutions. And when?

Jamie Miller, head of property, North America, Swiss Re Corporate Solutions

Jamie Miller, head of property, North America, Swiss Re Corporate Solutions

One year after Superstorm Sandy, about 75 percent of federal funding still had not been dispersed, he said.

The challenges settling claims following Sandy’s devastation will surely reoccur, Miller said. And there will be a “huge gap” between insured and economic losses for small business owners.

“Where a policy does not cover earthquake or flood, an insured’s coverage may only include ensuing losses, such as fire resulting from a burst gas pipe.”

Business income protection and coverage for extra expenses will not come close to covering the costs required to return to operation, he said.

For larger companies, even the most sophisticated risk manager will be challenged to calculate — or protect — the business income and recovery losses.

Access to gasoline will disappear rapidly, so emergency generators will become useless. Customers will be nonexistent.

Construction crews will be overwhelmed and face labor shortages; their price will dramatically escalate, assuming it’s even possible to hire a crew, Miller said.

Built-in redundancies to use nearby facilities to get back in business will be useless since the entire region will be affected, and receiving supplies, impossible.

Plus, with the popularity of just-in-time supply chains, companies will likely have few resources on hand to facilitate production.

At the same time, U.S. and Asian companies that rely on goods from the devastated area will go lacking.

“The big question is, what are we going to do about it?” — Jay Wilson, Clackamas County (Oregon) resilience coordinator

After the Thailand floods in 2011, some car manufacturers delayed production for months because of a lack of components, while computer industry companies saw shortages and adverse impacts for six months to a year.

When large commercial enterprises file insurance claims, they may be dealing with as many as 20 companies.

“Getting them all to agree on an adjustment is a big challenge,” Miller said.

Insurers that did not adequately manage risk aggregation will face bankruptcy. That, in turn, will leave third-party vendors and service providers unpaid and work undone.

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Steven Jakubowski, president, Aon Benfield’s impact forecasting team, said insurer solvency will be an issue. “We saw that in Northridge,” which was a 6.7 magnitude earthquake that hit Los Angeles on Jan. 17, 1994.

According to the Insurance Information Institute, Northridge caused $15.3 billion in insured damage, topped only by Hurricane Katrina, the attacks on the World Trade Center and Hurricane Andrew.

“We are so big on public/private partnerships because of this,” Miller said. “The resiliency initiative is all about creating awareness of overall risk.”

Swiss Re’s global partnerships business focuses on building long-term resilience, while helping governments transfer risk away from taxpayers and into the private market, aiming to reduce over-dependence on an increasingly strained federal disaster budget, Kaplan said.

Wilson said the aim of emergency planning is to create a two-to-four week recovery window. Right now, it’s months and years.

“We haven’t had anything this big in our country before,” he said. “For me, I just accept it. It’s gonna happen,” said Wilson. “The big question is, what are we going to do about it?” &

Anne Freedman is managing editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Exclusive | Hank Greenberg on China Trade, Starr’s Rapid Growth and 100th, Spitzer, Schneiderman and More

In a robust and frank conversation, the insurance legend provides unique insights into global trade, his past battles and what the future holds for the industry and his company.
By: | October 12, 2018 • 12 min read

In 1960, Maurice “Hank” Greenberg was hired as a vice president of C.V. Starr & Co. At age 35, he had already accomplished a great deal.

He served his country as part of the Allied Forces that stormed the beaches at Normandy and liberated the Nazi death camps. He fought again during the Korean War, earning a Bronze Star. He held a law degree from New York Law School.

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Now he was ready to make his mark on the business world.

Even C.V. Starr himself — who hired Mr. Greenberg and later hand-picked him as the successor to the company he founded in Shanghai in 1919 — could not have imagined what a mark it would be.

Mr. Greenberg began to build AIG as a Starr subsidiary, then in 1969, he took it public. The company would, at its peak, achieve a market cap of some $180 billion and cement its place as the largest insurance and financial services company in history.

This month, Mr. Greenberg travels to China to celebrate the 100th anniversary of C.V. Starr & Co. That visit occurs at a prickly time in U.S.-Sino relations, as the Trump administration levies tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars in Chinese goods and China retaliates.

In September, Risk & Insurance® sat down with Mr. Greenberg in his Park Avenue office to hear his thoughts on the centennial of C.V. Starr, the dynamics of U.S. trade relationships with China and the future of the U.S. insurance industry as it faces the challenges of technology development and talent recruitment and retention, among many others. What follows is an edited transcript of that discussion.


R&I: One hundred years is quite an impressive milestone for any company. Celebrating the anniversary in China signifies the importance and longevity of that relationship. Can you tell us more about C.V. Starr’s history with China?

Hank Greenberg: We have a long history in China. I first went there in 1975. There was little there, but I had business throughout Asia, and I stopped there all the time. I’d stop there a couple of times a year and build relationships.

When I first started visiting China, there was only one state-owned insurance company there, PICC (the People’s Insurance Company of China); it was tiny at the time. We helped them to grow.

I also received the first foreign life insurance license in China, for AIA (The American International Assurance Co.). To date, there has been no other foreign life insurance company in China. It took me 20 years of hard work to get that license.

We also introduced an agency system in China. They had none. Their life company employees would get a salary whether they sold something or not. With the agency system of course you get paid a commission if you sell something. Once that agency system was installed, it went on to create more than a million jobs.

R&I: So Starr’s success has meant success for the Chinese insurance industry as well.

Hank Greenberg: That’s partly why we’re going to be celebrating that anniversary there next month. That celebration will occur alongside that of IBLAC (International Business Leaders’ Advisory Council), an international business advisory group that was put together when Zhu Rongji was the mayor of Shanghai [Zhu is since retired from public life]. He asked me to start that to attract foreign companies to invest in Shanghai.

“It turns out that it is harder [for China] to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

Shanghai and China in general were just coming out of the doldrums then; there was a lack of foreign investment. Zhu asked me to chair IBLAC and to help get it started, which I did. I served as chairman of that group for a couple of terms. I am still a part of that board, and it will be celebrating its 30th anniversary along with our 100th anniversary.

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We have a good relationship with China, and we’re candid as you can tell from the op-ed I published in the Wall Street Journal. I’m told that my op-ed was received quite well in China, by both Chinese companies and foreign companies doing business there.

On August 29, Mr. Greenberg published an opinion piece in the WSJ reminding Chinese leaders of the productive history of U.S.-Sino relations and suggesting that Chinese leaders take pragmatic steps to ease trade tensions with the U.S.

R&I: What’s your outlook on current trade relations between the U.S. and China?

Hank Greenberg: As to the current environment, when you are in negotiations, every leader negotiates differently.

President Trump is negotiating based on his well-known approach. What’s different now is that President Xi (Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China) made himself the emperor. All the past presidents in China before the revolution had two terms. He’s there for life, which makes things much more difficult.

R&I: Sure does. You’ve got a one- or two-term president talking to somebody who can wait it out. It’s definitely unique.

Hank Greenberg: So, clearly a lot of change is going on in China. Some of it is good. But as I said in the op-ed, China needs to be treated like the second largest economy in the world, which it is. And it will be the number one economy in the world in not too many years. That means that you can’t use the same terms of trade that you did 25 or 30 years ago.

They want to have access to our market and other markets. Fine, but you have to have reciprocity, and they have not been very good at that.

R&I: What stands in the way of that happening?

Hank Greenberg: I think there are several substantial challenges. One, their structure makes it very difficult. They have a senior official, a regulator, who runs a division within the government for insurance. He keeps that job as long as he does what leadership wants him to do. He may not be sure what they want him to do.

For example, the president made a speech many months ago saying they are going to open up banking, insurance and a couple of additional sectors to foreign investment; nothing happened.

The reason was that the head of that division got changed. A new administrator came in who was not sure what the president wanted so he did nothing. Time went on and the international community said, “Wait a minute, you promised that you were going to do that and you didn’t do that.”

So the structure is such that it is very difficult. China can’t react as fast as it should. That will change, but it is going to take time.

R&I: That’s interesting, because during the financial crisis in 2008 there was talk that China, given their more centralized authority, could react more quickly, not less quickly.

Hank Greenberg: It turns out that it is harder to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.

R&I: Obviously, you have a very unique perspective and experience in China. For American companies coming to China, what are some of the current challenges?

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Hank Greenberg: Well, they very much want to do business in China. That’s due to the sheer size of the country, at 1.4 billion people. It’s a very big market and not just for insurance companies. It’s a whole range of companies that would like to have access to China as easily as Chinese companies have access to the United States. As I said previously, that has to be resolved.

It’s not going to be easy, because China has a history of not being treated well by other countries. The U.S. has been pretty good in that way. We haven’t taken advantage of China.

R&I: Your op-ed was very enlightening on that topic.

Hank Greenberg: President Xi wants to rebuild the “middle kingdom,” to what China was, a great country. Part of that was his takeover of the South China Sea rock islands during the Obama Administration; we did nothing. It’s a little late now to try and do something. They promised they would never militarize those islands. Then they did. That’s a real problem in Southern Asia. The other countries in that region are not happy about that.

R&I: One thing that has differentiated your company is that it is not a public company, and it is not a mutual company. We think you’re the only large insurance company with that structure at that scale. What advantages does that give you?

Hank Greenberg: Two things. First of all, we’re more than an insurance company. We have the traditional investment unit with the insurance company. Then we have a separate investment unit that we started, which is very successful. So we have a source of income that is diverse. We don’t have to underwrite business that is going to lose a lot of money. Not knowingly anyway.

R&I: And that’s because you are a private company?

Hank Greenberg: Yes. We attract a different type of person in a private company.

R&I: Do you think that enables you to react more quickly?

Hank Greenberg: Absolutely. When we left AIG there were three of us. Myself, Howie Smith and Ed Matthews. Howie used to run the internal financials and Ed Matthews was the investment guy coming out of Morgan Stanley when I was putting AIG together. We started with three people and now we have 3,500 and growing.

“I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

R&I:  You being forced to leave AIG in 2005 really was an injustice, by the way. AIG wouldn’t have been in the position it was in 2008 if you had still been there.

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Hank Greenberg: Absolutely not. We had all the right things in place. We met with the financial services division once a day every day to make sure they stuck to what they were supposed to do. Even Hank Paulson, the Secretary of Treasury, sat on the stand during my trial and said that if I’d been at the company, it would not have imploded the way it did.

R&I: And that fateful decision the AIG board made really affected the course of the country.

Hank Greenberg: So many people lost all of their net worth. The new management was taking on billions of dollars’ worth of risk with no collateral. They had decimated the internal risk management controls. And the government takeover of the company when the financial crisis blew up was grossly unfair.

From the time it went public, AIG’s value had increased from $300 million to $180 billion. Thanks to Eliot Spitzer, it’s now worth a fraction of that. His was a gross misuse of the Martin Act. It gives the Attorney General the power to investigate without probable cause and bring fraud charges without having to prove intent. Only in New York does the law grant the AG that much power.

R&I: It’s especially frustrating when you consider the quality of his own character, and the scandal he was involved in.

In early 2008, Spitzer was caught on a federal wiretap arranging a meeting with a prostitute at a Washington Hotel and resigned shortly thereafter.

Hank Greenberg: Yes. And it’s been successive. Look at Eric Schneiderman. He resigned earlier this year when it came out that he had abused several women. And this was after he came out so strongly against other men accused of the same thing. To me it demonstrates hypocrisy and abuse of power.

Schneiderman followed in Spitzer’s footsteps in leveraging the Martin Act against numerous corporations to generate multi-billion dollar settlements.

R&I: Starr, however, continues to thrive. You said you’re at 3,500 people and still growing. As you continue to expand, how do you deal with the challenge of attracting talent?

Hank Greenberg: We did something last week.

On September 16th, St. John’s University announced the largest gift in its 148-year history. The Starr Foundation donated $15 million to the school, establishing the Maurice R. Greenberg Leadership Initiative at St. John’s School of Risk Management, Insurance and Actuarial Science.

Hank Greenberg: We have recruited from St. John’s for many, many years. These are young people who want to be in the insurance industry. They don’t get into it by accident. They study to become proficient in this and we have recruited some very qualified individuals from that school. But we also recruit from many other universities. On the investment side, outside of the insurance industry, we also recruit from Wall Street.

R&I: We’re very interested in how you and other leaders in this industry view technology and how they’re going to use it.

Hank Greenberg: I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.

R&I: So as the pre-eminent leader of the insurance industry, what do you see in terms of where insurance is now an where it’s going?

Hank Greenberg: The country and the world will always need insurance. That doesn’t mean that what we have today is what we’re going to have 25 years from now.

How quickly the change comes and how far it will go will depend on individual companies and individual countries. Some will be more brave than others. But change will take place, there is no doubt about it.

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More will go on in space, there is no question about that. We’re involved in it right now as an insurance company, and it will get broader.

One of the things you have to worry about is it’s now a nuclear world. It’s a more dangerous world. And again, we have to find some way to deal with that.

So, change is inevitable. You need people who can deal with change.

R&I:  Is there anything else, Mr. Greenberg, you want to comment on?

Hank Greenberg: I think I’ve covered it. &

The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]