Insurers have stepped up in recent years as severe storms have stretched resources more dramatically than ever. It was no different in 2021 as record numbers of hurricanes, floods, and freezes hit around the world.
In February 2021, much of the US suffered through a series of severe winter storms (informally called “Winter Storm Uri”) that caused more than $200 billion in damages. Common claims were for burst pipes and resulting water damage.
The state of Texas experienced a huge power crisis caused by failures throughout its electricity grid. This was the most devastating energy collapse in the state’s history, and millions of Texans had to live without access to heat, water and food. The average time without electricity was more than 40 hours in the areas where more than 4.5 million homes and businesses had lost power.
Later in 2021, Hurricane Ida was a record storm that slammed the Gulf Coast. Particularly hard hit was Louisiana, where Ida became the second-most severe and damaging hurricane in the state’s recorded history. After landing in Louisiana, the storm caused destruction and flooding in neighboring states as well as up the Atlantic coast as far north as Boston.
Responding Before — and During — the Storms
How did P&C insurers react to these and other catastrophic events in 2021?
The arrival of some disasters can be predicted. Because hurricanes are discovered and tracked long before they strike, insurers can issue warnings and helpful instructions to policyholders well ahead of landfall.
Through a series of public communications in late August, American National offered guidance on how to prepare for the approaching storm in states along the Gulf Coast. A press release dated August 27 and titled “American National Urges Claims Preparedness for Hurricane Ida” instructed policyholders to be ready to protect themselves as well as their families, property and belongings. It also anticipated the inevitable flood of property claims:
As Hurricane Ida approaches the Gulf Coast, American National Insurance Company strongly encourages its policyholders to prepare for the possibility of severe weather this weekend and into early next week. If you are an American National policyholder… there are several ways to report a claim (to ensure efficient claims service, check that your login credentials are up to date)…. Stay alert, stay safe: Refer to the National Hurricane Center at www.nhc.noaa.gov for hurricane preparedness, weather tracking and additional updates.
Unlike Hurricane Ida, Winter Storm Uri spread across the US as a relatively unexpected and even unprecedented series of disasters. The sudden cold wave and resulting power outages left nearly 10 million people in the US and Mexico with no electricity.
After the first week of winter storms in 2021, the San Antonio Business Journal (February 17, 2020) wrote that “USAA has reported more than 10,000 insurance claims due to the ongoing winter weather events nationwide … the majority of which are in Texas, where many customers have lost power or encountered frozen water pipes.” (The storm and freeze would eventually cause policyholders in Texas to submit more than 456,500 claims to their insurers.)
USAA had also taken actions to prepare policyholders for the winter freeze and its aftermath. The Stay Safe During a Winter Storm section on the USAA website gives advice on what to do before and after a major event, a natural disaster action plan, a four-step overview of the claims process, and tips that help policyholders protect personal safety and finances, carry out property inspections, and assess damages.
Preparing for the Inevitable
Not surprisingly, P&C insurers are exploring and developing ways to help their policyholders prepare for future — and perhaps inevitable — catastrophic events. The world has experienced an increasing intensity of nearly all severe weather events since the year 2000: hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, droughts, wildfires and extreme heat. The average intensity will continue to grow.
Knowing that they cannot control the severity of natural disasters, insurers want to mitigate the severity of policyholders’ damages — or at least enhance the claims process so that it is faster, easier and more efficient. Zurich Insurance UK, for example, recently developed its Flood Resilience Toolkit to keep policyholders on top of the latest in flood prevention tactics. This is part of the insurer’s overall climate change strategy that is represented by the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance, a global network with the same goals and much more.
The Zurich UK strategy aims to build flood resilience through community work, research, advocacy and knowledge sharing. The goal is to lessen the severe impact of flooding. According to the Zurich Sustainability Report 2021:
In an industry-first move, Zurich will inform flood-hit customers of simple changes they could make to reduce their vulnerability to future flooding. Zurich will also signpost customers to specialist advice on flood resilience, available grants and other resources. This is in addition to the flood prevention advice Zurich already offers to customers. To support this, Zurich has launched its Flood Resilience Toolkit, which sets out a formal process for loss adjusters to follow to ensure resilience is considered as part of every flood claim. Also in 2021, Zurich UK announced it would provide free counseling to policyholders and their families who become victims of flooding.
Aviva UK and Ireland General Insurance is yet another insurer with a “resilience” strategy to prepare its policyholders for the results of climate change in the future. In its report titled Building Future Communities: Creating resilient homes and businesses in a changing climate, the company established a “seven-step call for change.” The Aviva website features a summary of the report, in which Adam Winslow (CEO of Aviva UK and Ireland General Insurance) explains:
Severe floods and storms are an acute reminder of how extreme weather is already affecting people, homes and livelihoods across the UK. And it’s not just floods; subsidence- and heat-related risks are likely to increase as temperatures rise, putting more homes and businesses under threat. We can’t stop the changes that are already happening, but we can act — now — to help reduce their impact in the future…. Our Building Future Communities report sets out the challenges that lay ahead for the UK, the solutions that could help tackle some of the problems and a call for collaboration to bring about urgent, tangible actions.
From around the world, similar plans for responding to the climate crisis indicate that insurers are preparing their companies — and their policyholders — for the inevitable disasters to come.
Richard Wallis is the Senior Editor at Guidewire. Connect with him via email.