Severe weather is upon us in the United States with damaging tornadoes hitting the southern states in late January and late February. One EF4 tornado also tore through Alabama and Georgia in early March, the worst of the roughly 100 reported tornado total so far in 2019. As we move into the spring and summer months, conditions historically become more volatile. Specifically from March to June, the highest chance of severe weather spreads north and east across the Plains, the Midwest, and Southeast. Like Hurricanes and Wildfires, Tornadoes have a peak season too.
The Great Galveston Storm of 1900
This barrier island along the gulf coast was home to millionaires and large elaborate mansions sprawling the coastline. The highest point of elevation being 8.7 feet above sea level, the community is ripe for devastation from a hurricane.
In the year 1900, this area was struck with a horrendous hurricane that would ultimately destroy the entirety of the community and kill an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 people.
It seems strange to be talking about weather events that peak in the summer, like tornadoes, while we still have massive winter storms impacting much of the Northeastern United States. However, now is typically when we start shifting our focus onto the weather incidents of the upcoming summer season. The end of February is when tornado season starts to ramp up, and will typically peak around mid-June.
On October 21st, 2018, Typhoon Yutu began its development as a tropical depression, east of the Northern Mariana Islands, a US commonwealth. Just hours later, the storm reached tropical storm strength over the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean. During the period of the next three days Yutu would intensify to a Category 5 Typhoon. Around 2:00 AM on October 25th, Yutu made landfall on the Northern Mariana Islands. Satellite imagery shows the eye of the storm passing directly over the island Tinian (population 3,136), completely encompassing it as the devastation within the eye-wall continued on the surrounding islands of Saipan (population 52,263), Rota (population 2,477), and Guam. The damage received during the typhoon’s arrival would leave the island communities nearly unrecognizable. Yutu would be recorded as the strongest storm to impact a US territory in 2018, and the strongest to impact the Northern Mariana Islands in recorded history.
Super Typhoon Yutu’s Conditions Upon Landfall in the Northern Mariana Islands
Sustained Winds: Sustained 180 mph, Gusting over 200 mph
Storm Surge: Up to 20 feet
Rainfall: Up to 10 inches
The tone of the statements released by officials leading up to the storms arrival was indicative of the damages that would be seen in the days prior to Yutu’s landfall. The National Weather Service office in Guam released this frightening message before the storms arrival, “Most homes will sustain severe damage, with potential for complete roof failure and wall collapse. Most industrial buildings will be destroyed.” These comments proved to be unnervingly valid once the storm had passed.
After the preliminary aerial damage assessments were completed on October 29th, the figures shown below give insight to just how severe the damages are.
These aerial images released by DigitalGlobe give further testament to the absolute devastation that occurred in the disaster area.
It is estimated that these communities will be without power for months in the wake of Typhoon Yutu. Saipan currently has 99 percent of its community without power, Tinian is 100 percent out of power, and the small island of Rota has restored power to 99 percent of the island.
In the 96 hours after the storm’s passing, 121 storm related emergency room visits were recorded. Unfortunately two lives have been lost from this community during this natural disaster.
Yutu continued on its path of destruction after it passed over the Mariana Islands, its next stop, the Philippines. Even though the storm’s intensity, in terms of wind speeds was not as great in this impact area, the devastation was still staggering. With the Philippines already saturated with moisture from the Typhoon Mangkhut, the unwelcomed rainfall from Yutu exacerbated the troubles for locals in the mountainous areas of the Philippines. As the storm hit, the rainfall caused massive landslides throughout the countryside. Roads throughout the impact area have been blocked by debris making recovery efforts difficult for the first responders. As the recovery process is continues, it truly paints the picture of how bad these events really are for these communities.
This past weekend, from Saturday into Monday morning, much of the Northern California Bay Area was under a Red Flag Warning due to strong winds around 40 mph with gusts to 60 mph. Despite much of the country receiving some level of precipitation recently, California remains just above the drought threshold. The gusty winds and dry fuels the state sees every fall leads to heightened fire weather conditions this time of year. Fortunately, with this strongest wind event thus far this Fall, fire agencies across the region responded rapidly and en masse to any new reports of ignition.
“Of the twenty most destructive wildfires in CA history, eleven of them have happened in October and another three in November or December.”
Transitioning out of Western Fire Season
Most of the Western fire season began the seasonal transition out of its peak in early September with fall’s cooler temperatures and precipitation. October and November mark another transition as the focus typically shifts to California where fire activity remains a major concern with summer-dried fuels and occasional Foehn wind events develop across California until winter rains come.
Brief Look Back to October 2017
Monday, October 8th, marked one year since 21 major wildfires started across Northern California and devastated the Napa-Sonoma area. Collectively the fires burned more than 245,000 acres over the course of the month. The Northern California Firestorm, as it came to be called, destroyed nearly 9,000 structures and was responsible for 44 civilian fatalities and caused 14.5 billion dollars in damages.
The fire spread was remarkable as ember showers spread from house to house throughout several communities and the fires moved at record-setting speeds. Gusting and strong winds were an instrumental driving force behind the massive levels of damage caused by the conflagrations. What wasn’t record setting was this type of fire weather happening in October or later in California. As the table below shows, of the twenty most destructive wildfires in CA history, eleven of them have happened in October and another three in November or December.
Obviously all that late season activity means, historically, the Western Fire Season is far from over in California. Fire Departments remain at full staffing, on the ready, with ears perked to every new start that could be the next big one…especially with the fire weather possibilities this time of year. RedZone does the same, and those of you in the insurance world reading this, so too should you. Those 14 wildfires have collectively caused tens of billions of dollars in damage over the years.
With Lake County now holding the title of the largest fire in California’s recorded history, the Ranch Fire of the Mendocino Complex, it leaves one to wonder what exactly it is that’s producing the conditions for these enormous fires to thrive in this area. It has been estimated that in the last 5 years, over 55 percent of the surface area in Lake County has burned in wildfires. It has become an unfortunate understanding of the residents that have chosen to settle in this county that it is not if a big fire will occur, but rather, when will the next one occur. In regards to wildland fire, there are three main elements that are known to have the most impact on fire behavior: weather, topography, and fuels. Unfortunately for Lake County, the area has all three of these influential factors working against the fire regime of the area.
Lake County is located in the Coastal Range of northern California, on the west side of the Sacramento Valley. Lake County resides in a mid-altitude area that is high enough above sea level to be above the influence of the marine layer, but not high enough in the mountains to feel impacts of the cooler upper atmospheric air. In the center of the county rests Clear Lake, which is the lowest point in elevation throughout the entire area. Surrounding this geographic feature are seemingly endless mountains, hills, and valleys extending in every direction until they arrive in the northern reaches of the Mendocino National Forest. These areas of tremendous elevation variation are where fires tend to thrive. Fires are able to take advantage of these slopes to preheat the fuels up-slope from the fire, while simultaneously utilizing the convection column of hot gasses being funneled through these drainages to fuel the fire’s spread.
The local weather patterns of Lake County tend to have a negative impact on fire behavior in the area. During fire season, the predominate winds blow from the northwest, with the occasional shift coming from the northeast, bringing the warm and dry air from the northern portion of the Sacramento Valley into the area. On the extreme side of the spectrum are Foehn Wind events that cause extreme fire behavior when they occur. Foehn or “sundowner” winds bring hot, dry air into the area, with an uncharacteristic down-slope flow that allows fire to spread at unfathomable rates. When these events occur, fires can continue to burn actively through the night which is usually the time when fire behavior begins to moderate.
Lake County is relatively diverse in terms of the vegetation species throughout the county’s boundaries. Nearly every major fuel type that exists is contained within the county including grasslands, oak woodlands, brush, mixed conifer forests, and hardwood forests. Due to the wide spectrum of vegetation species here, fires can range from low intensity grass fires, to extremely high intensity forest fires. The map below depicts the vegetation classifications throughout the entire county. Starting in the southern areas of the county, the predominate fuel type is comprised of annual grasses and oak woodlands. As you move up in elevation on both the east and the western side of Clear Lake, the fuel type primarily changes to a chaparral-based fuel bed. Progressing further north into the Mendocino National Forest, the dominant fuel type changes once again to one of a heavy timber, mixed conifer, and hardwood forested area.
The reasons above are all variables in what seems to be a devastating half-decade of fire history for the Lake County region. The complicated wildfire situation in this area has been influenced by the recent years of drought, which has decreased the available moisture in the region, drying out the vegetation and furthering their susceptibility to fire. Lastly, Lake County has had an increase in residency due to increasing interest in the Napa/Sonoma Wine country. With more human influence comes the increased probability of fires igniting.
Insurance risk or Opportunity?
Will this information impact insurance companies when considering existing policies, writing future business, or even adjusting premium rates in this county? Does this amount of fire activity in such a small time frame deter insurance carriers from writing new business in these areas? These recently charred areas should be considered as an opportunity to obtain new clientele due to the diminished risk from wildfire in the upcoming years based off the lack of vegetation. Some factors to take into account would be the return interval rate of fire in each of these fuel types. This knowledge would give an estimation of how long that specific site will have before it is ready to burn if the new vegetation is the same species. For example, Chaparral brush which, is a large portion of Lake Counties fuel, has a highly variable fire return interval ranging from 10 to over 100 years. If properly managed an individual could easily keep fire from returning to the landscape for a long period of time. Another advantage of insuring homeowners in recent burn areas, is the opportunity to educate them with advice on how to manage the vegetation around their home as it begins to regrow. This would in turn, promote defensible space around the structure, and give the client a piece of mind that their insurance company cares for their home, while simultaneously protecting the insurers investment.
Back in April we outlined how Flooding is the by far the most common natural disaster and therefore the worst in terms of costliness, death, and destruction. Flooding woes come in many ways too, including long-term swelling lakes and rivers, storm surge and coastal flooding from Hurricanes and Tropical storms, and flash floods from downpours from severe thunderstorms. Last year’s Hurricane Harvey alone caused over 125 billion dollars, mostly from the widespread flooding across East Texas and Louisiana.
More Flooding Woes from Hurricane Florence
Yet another example of the ongoing cost of flooding was this month’s Hurricane Florence over the Carolinas. Five major watersheds saw an average of 17.5 inches of rain over four days, calculated to be the second worst in the last 70 years (second only to Hurricane Harvey’s 25.6 inches). The storm caused widespread flooding across a 14,000 sq mile area across both states. With two of the worst storms in consecutive years, leading meteorologists are blaming warmer oceans, more moisture and slower moving storms due in various ways to climate change causing tropical cyclones to dump more rain.
12 counties in North Carolina, where the storm made landfall near Wilmington, remain under varying types of evacuation orders as flood waters are either still cresting or very slowly receding. Consequently, nearly 300 roads are still closed across NC and neighborhoods in cities that thought they made it through the event unscathed are now being impacted. The toll on residents and infrastructure is estimated in the ballpark of 38 billion (and rising), making it the sixth costliest tropical cyclone on record.
Insurance Should Help, No?
Just as after last year’s Harvey impact (125 billion), flood insurance again has been a hot topic. With estimates of a million people dealign with flooding woes across the two states, it’s no surprise that in the aftermath of Florence there’s been a heap of national news coverage on the issue. If you google “Florence Flood Insurance” every article highlights the dire situation and elaborates on the fact that typical homeowner’s insurance doesn’t cover most of the people (estimated at 85%) affected. The other 15% have opted in to their insurance plan’s specialized flood coverage or were informed enough to join the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). Whether the others are uninformed, can’t pay, or don’t want to pay extra they are now (similar to Houston residents after Harvey) in what these articles are calling a ‘miserable’ fallout situation.
Florence, like Harvey, turned out to be less of a wind event and with flood excluded on most homeowner’s policies, experts from the insurer point of view are expecting to deal with a “manageable” and “insignificant” event. Of the $38 billion dollar bill, only an estimated $1.7 billion to $4.6 billion will fall on the insurance industry from Florence’s winds and storm surge (damage from which are covered).
Question: Who will pay for homeowners who want to rebuild their homes then?
Answer 1: The Homeowner
- Uninsured homeowners will have to pay out of pocket or get loans from the Federal Government to pay for repairs to their flood-damaged homes. The loans have to be repaid in full.
Answer 2: The Taxpayers (indirectly)
- The NFIP is vastly under-funded by policyholder revenue and multiple loans and bailouts since Hurricane Katrina have the taxpayers regularly on the hook for billions of dollars in relief.
This New York Times article sums this up nicely.
Flooding affects the US populace, both coastal and inland, every year. Implications from flooding events are statistically worsening whether from continued warming oceans and climate change or something else causing these outlier events to be more regular. Flooding woes like this month’s Florence is life changing for a huge number of people and communities, and unfortunately, it seems it’s but a matter of time until the next one with the same storyline.
National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP)