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Published on
Tue, 02/01/2022 - 12:55
Looking back on two unprecedented years for natural disasters, it's easy to get lost in the scale and scope of the damage while losing sight of the key lessons risk managers can learn from tumultuous years in natural disasters.

As reports recapping damage from the 2021 natural disaster season continue to shed light on another tumultuous year, one can’t help but to feel like Bill Murray in the 1993 film, Groundhog Day.  

Last year, risk professionals found themselves recounting the events of 2020 – a cold snap causing the Texas power grid to fail, typhoon Goni growing into the strongest storm of the year in only 24 hours, the Easte Troublesome wildfire expanding to over 100,000 acres in a single day, among many more. At the time, these events felt out of the ordinary, but as we look back on another year of disaster, deja vu sets in and we’re pushed to accept our new reality – natural disasters are getting worse, more frequent, and more unpredictable. 

According to NPR, “climate change has helped drive a fivefold increase in the number of weather-related disasters in the last 50 years [and] means disasters are happening simultaneously, too.” As risk managers across industries charge into a new year, we look back at key lessons learned from the 2020 and 2021 natural disaster seasons. 

Record setting “normal” 

2020 and 2021 shattered records across a wide array of natural disaster-related categories. Sarah Kaplan, a climate reporter the Washington Post, provides a summary

“By many measures, 2020 has been disastrous. Hurricanes in the Atlantic are so numerous that there are not enough letters in the Latin alphabet to name them all. Fires in California torched more than 4 million acres, smashing the state’s record for land burned in a single season. In the first nine months of this year, at least 188 people have been killed in a record-tying 16 weather disasters that cost $1 billion or more.” 

At some point, however, having each year setting new records will become the new normal – so have we reached it?  

Globally, the past two years ushered in other disasters including typhoons, severe flooding, earthquakes, and volcano eruptions. In 2021, Ernst Rauch, head of Munich Re’s Corporate Climate Center, stated that these patterns were likely to continue. ‘We have a new normal... ” Fast forward to 2022 and Munich Re is reporting that natural disasters in 2021 were the second-costliest on record. 

With this compounding knowledge, risk managers can no longer treat these patterns as aberrations. Instead, preparations must be made in light of the reality that what defines “normal” will most likely include a steady increase in the frequency, reach, and severity of natural disasters. 

Takeaway: More “mega-seasons” are likely, so operational resilience efforts must scale up accordingly. 

More locations are at risk 

In addition to the increased frequency of natural disasters, the footprint of impacted areas is also expanding. Hurricanes, for example, are moving slower and reaching further inland, creating exposure in areas that have historically been spared. Eric Verbeten of the University of Wisconsin-Madison points out in the ominously titled article Trends in Hurricane Behavior Show Stronger, Slower and Farther-reaching Storms, “Research over the last decade has shown alarming trends resulting in more destructive hurricanes. Global trends suggest hurricanes are getting stronger, moving more slowly over land, and deviating farther north and south of the equator.” 

Similarly, wildfires are threatening a growing number of regions that previously were rarely affected. “In recent years—and 2020 is no exception—parts of the Pacific Northwest that are typically too wet to burn are experiencing more frequent, severe and larger wildfires due to changes in climate,” observes Cristina Rojas with Portland State University. Rojas cites a study that states the historical frequency of wildfires in these cool, wet regions was 50-200 years between occurrences. That number has now shrunk to 12.  

As operational resilience and continuity strategies are developed for an organization, the fact that an increased number of locations may need to plan for natural disasters must be taken into account. Areas once considered outside the boundary of exposure to threats from hurricanes, wildfires, and flooding should now be included in preparation and planning efforts. 

Takeaway: Historical metrics may not paint a complete picture of the current threat status. Look for trends, and consider expanding the potential zones of impact for planning purposes. 

Less time to prepare 

A particularly concerning trend is the alarming rate at which these types of events have seen periods of explosive growth. In the Yale Climate Connection, Jeff Masters writes of the dangers this poses: 

“Rapidly intensifying hurricanes like Michael and Harvey that strengthen just before landfall are among the most dangerous storms, as they can catch forecasters and populations off guard, risking inadequate evacuation efforts and large casualties. A particular concern is that intensification rate increases are not linear as the intensity of a storm increases – they increase by the square power of the intensity.” 

Is your ERM program ready for the next disaster? 

In 2020, this occurred multiple times with Atlantic storms, as well as in the Pacific, where over the course of 24 hours typhoon Goni transformed from a normal cyclone into the planet’s most intense storm of the year. The rapid intensification of natural disasters is also increasingly common in wildfires like the East Troublesome (CO) wildfire, which exploded in size by over 100,000 acres in a single day

The Washington Post article Cold, heat, fires, hurricanes and tornadoes: The year in weather disasters ushers us through a tumultuous recounting of the extreme weather events  in the United States in 2021. Though, some of the deadliest events occurred globally, including a volcanic eruption in Indonesia, a cyclone in India, flash floods in India and Nepal, historic flooding in Germany and Belgium, landslides in China, and more. 

Takeaway: Forecasts may become less effective in the future, meaning less time to react. This means continuity plans must be more agile and need to be tested more frequently to increase readiness. 

Natural disaster “seasons” are becoming much less useful 

Confining expected impacts from natural disasters to traditional “seasons” is becoming less effective as seasons expand and outlier events become more frequent. According to Crystal Kolden, an assistant professor of management of complex systems at the University of California at Merced and former wildlife firefighter. “Climate change models predict that we will see meteorological extremes that produce catastrophic fires in unexpected places and outside of normal fire seasons,” she writes in This is how we know climate change is making wildfires worse. “What we see in California and the Pacific Northwest now will be only the beginning.” 

Simon Wang of Utah State University, in a September 2020 interview with NPR’s Lulu Garcia Navarro  explained how the traditional conditions for determining wildfire seasons may no longer apply. “So the wildfire season was defined because of [when] the weather conditions are prone to sustained fires if ignited,” he said. “And they used to be not as long as today - you know, used to be maybe four months, for example, in some areas. And... now it's almost like year-round.” 

Many areas have seen similar lengthening of drought, hurricane, and flooding “seasons,” making it more challenging to stage required resources and plan for the greatest periods of exposure.  

Takeaway: Continuity plans may require more of a continuous approach rather than cyclical efforts. As threats move to year-round events in some areas, so too must the response. 

Next-level challenge — compound events 

Planning for extended seasons of wider-ranging and rapidly intensifying disasters that offer less advanced warning is a daunting prospect. The convergence of multiple events at once is a nightmare scenario. “It's a concept scientists call compound events, and it is necessary to factor these confluences into future projections to properly estimate risk, response and resources,” reports Jeff Berardelli, a meteorologist and climate specialist for CBS News “On September 9, NOAA released its latest State of the Climate Report, which finds that just during the month of August the U.S. was hit by four different billion-dollar disasters: two hurricanes, huge wildfires and an extraordinary Midwest derecho.” 

Instead of assuming that natural disaster events will be distinct and isolated, the odds are increasing that multiple large-scale events may overlap, straining available resources and complicating communications and responses. 

Don’t be surprised by compounding events | Take the ERM Maturity Assessment 

Takeaway: Robust workflows that ensure the right information is getting into the right hands even when more than one event is demanding attention is the first step to untangling complicated response scenarios. 

Lessons we should have learned: 

  • Business continuity and operational resiliency efforts need to be major strategic initiatives, not something attempted  on an “as permitted” basis. 

  • These risks are interconnected and complex. You need to use an integrated approach in order to tackle it. 

  • Insurance policy management is an often overlooked complement to continuity planning efforts. Given the strain on insurers from the scale and scope of related claims, coverage may not transfer as much risk as it once did and additional steps may be required. 

  • None of this can wait. Standing still is falling behind.