If it's not an event in our own backyard, we're not really interested - even less so if it's something that might just occur at some time in the future. Let's face it, most of us find it difficult enough just to plan for what's definitely going to happen, let alone agonizing over what might be over the horizon. Very often, regardless of whether we might be sitting right on top of a catastrophe waiting to happen, we tend to close our eyes to the danger, just to preserve our sanity. And we don't pay much heed either to warnings issued by the insurance industry or natural catastrophe experts.
My guess is that the good citizens San Francisco think the same way, even though they sit astride the so-called "Ring of Fire," the most seismically active part of the Earth's crust. Indeed, the Southern California Earthquake Center says that the probability of a magnitude 6.7 or larger earthquake striking the Los Angeles-San Francisco area over the next 30 years is 67%. Given the population density and economic significance of this region, the consequences of such a quake do not bear thinking about.
All that said, this head-in-the-sand mindset might just be changing. An article entitled "Bigger ThanThe Big One" in the August edition of the Risk & Insurance journal describes the devastation that would be wrought should an 8.5 magnitude quake strike just north of San Francisco.
It makes for nightmarish reading. The good news, according to the article, is that San Francisco has recently appointed a Chief Resilience Officer, Patrick Otellini, who has set about helping the city government prepare more systematically for the earthquake risk than perhaps has been the case in the past. The appointment of such officials is funded by a Rockefeller Foundation initiative designed to help 100 cities around the world bounce back more quickly following natural disasters. Swiss Re supports this initiative by applying its risk management expertise to help these cities develop resilience strategies for their communities.
Apart from raising awareness among local politicians of the need to stiffen San Fran's disaster resilience, Patrick Otellini's program of measures includes retro-fitting buildings to make them more earthquake-proof and strengthening the city's sea defences.
But the urban resilience challenge means more than just strengthening infrastructure. Quoted in the Risk & Insurance article, Swiss Re's Alex Kaplan points out that the low take-up rate in home earthquake insurance in California is also a problem. An earthquake of 8.5 on the Richter scale would severely damage around 1million homes, he says, a large proportion of which carry mortgages and are uninsured.
Comments Kaplan: "Not only will there be hundreds of billions of dollars in damage but as a result of the earthquake, the rate of mortgage defaults and credit losses in California will spike. And keep in mind that California has one-sixth of all underwater mortgages.”
The nightmare scenario described in the article then becomes "perfect" when the federal government finds itself unable bail out local governments suffering under reduced property tax collections just as emergency public services are stretched to the limit.
Swiss Re believes that its risk transfer solutions can assist with covering the financial burden public entities might face after such a disaster. Moreover, its risk management experts can also help public authorities prepare for natural disasters more comprehensively than in the past. In a recent publication, "Risky cities: Los Angeles," Swiss Re uses its risk models and hazard data to analyze the earthquake risk and other natural perils on this megacity.
Category: Climate/natural disasters: Earthquakes
Location: Adliswil, Switzerland