As the Director of Property Underwriting at USAA, my focus is on understanding how natural perils such as earthquakes, hurricanes, tornados, and winter storms impact our insureds, or, as we call them, members. USAA is the 5th largest homeowners insurer in the country with over 3 million policyholders spread throughout all 50 states in the U.S. I really enjoy my job for a variety of reasons: I have a great team of professionals that I work with, the military families that we serve inspire us to do our best for them, and underwriting offers a variety of challenges that keep the work fresh.
One benefit of my role is that I have the opportunity to travel frequently and learn from experts across a wide range of disciplines. I’ve been in the field learning from firefighters, been interviewed by TV stations to discuss hurricane preparedness, and traveled to the Big Island of Hawai’I to see lava flow from the Kilauea volcano. But nothing tops the week that I spent embedded with the Hail Study team from the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS) doing field research on hail – consider it “safe storm chasing”!
IBHS is an independent, nonprofit, scientific research, and communications organization supported solely by property insurers and reinsurers. IBHS’ building safety research leads to real-world solutions for home and business owners, helping to create more resilient communities. Their mission is to conduct objective, scientific research to identify and promote the most effective ways to strengthen homes, businesses, and communities against natural disasters and other causes of loss.  IBHS constructed their Research Center in Richburg, SC which opened in 2010 and allows them to perform a variety of realistic tests to evaluate how different construction methods and building materials hold up against fire, wind, rain, and hail. In the case of hail, existing test standards are inadequate as they either use steel balls or uniform ice balls made in a similar fashion to how you would make ice cubes in a mold. Both methods fail to capture the true structure of naturally occurring hail and, more importantly, produce damage to roofing materials that is demonstrably different than the damage patterns produced by actual hail. As a result, the current test standards for impact-resistant roofs do not do an adequate job in assessing the relative performance of roofing materials in an actual hail event.
Hail is of keen interest for two additional reasons: 1) it drives a significant amount of insured losses each year, usually in the billions of dollars, and 2) there is a dearth of scientific research that has been done on hail by government agencies and the academic community. From 2010-2016, there was an average of 6,339 reports of large hail 1” or more in diameter annually according to the National Weather Service.  There have been 9 events causing $1B or more in insured losses to date in 2017, and 2 were hail related including the costliest weather event in Colorado history when up to baseball size hail pummeled the Denver metro area in May, and the Minneapolis area got slammed in June.  Despite these large economic losses, hail has not merited much research compared to other perils such as hurricanes and tornadoes because hail is not considered a threat to life safety. IBHS, with the support of its member companies, decided to fill some of the gaps in knowledge by conducting field research for the first time in its history through the IBHS Hail Study effort.
After following the great work of the IBHS Hail Study team for the past couple of years, I was fortunate enough to get on a list to deploy with the team in 2017. I was not able to go out with the team for their first 2 deployments due to scheduling conflicts but was lucky in early June 2017, when the atmospheric conditions were favorable for hail over the next 7 days in the northern Plains states. With just 48 hours notice, I booked my travel to Denver to meet the IBHS team at the airport. After all team members arrived from their departure points, we headed to pick up the gear which consisted of 4 very large, heavy boxes shipped from the IBHS Research Lab. The rental vehicles were outfitted with radios and GIS to be able to communicate with each other in the field and ensure proper positioning when deploying disdrometers (aka probes), ensuring that all 3 teams were working together in a coordinated fashion. A disdrometer is a unique invention of IBHS and the brainchild of their Lead Research Meteorologist, Ian Giammanco. It consists of a square pyramid at the top fabricated from metal with sensors that pick up the impact from hailstones which are captured by a computing unit housed underneath. The disdrometer is deployed in the field on top of standard tripod legs to provide stability and balance during a hail event. After we spent the afternoon preparing for deployment, we plotted our target location to deploy for the following day.
Over the course of the following week, we traveled over 2,000 miles through 5 states: CO, ND, NE, SD, and WY, each day attempting to put ourselves in position to deploy the disdrometers in such as way to capture the full hail swath as it passed over the probes. This proved to be a challenging task for many reasons. One major challenge was trying to deploy a full array of 16 disdrometers in front of a hail-producing convective storm with consistent spacing of 1 to 1 ½ miles between probes to capture the full hail swath and enough time to get out of the way before the hail hit us. Each storm moves at a different speed, and our biggest challenge was deploying on the final day in the field when the target storm was moving at an estimated 60 miles per hour! In addition, each storm can change its path on a moment’s notice based on the atmospheric conditions – there are a ton of complex factors that influence a storm’s development, strength, and path. Weather in general is the manifestation of a massive real-time complex adaptive system. The majority of days are fairly benign, and our constant experience with weather on a daily basis can cause us to not think too much about what is happening around us, but it is highly complex, and those who study meteorology find it captivating.
Another major challenge, that I did not fully appreciate until seeing it first-hand in the field, is navigating the road network to put the teams in the best position to deploy the disdrometers in the ideal formation with enough time to avoid getting directly impacted by the storm’s wrath. Out in the Plains, 1 mile by 1 mile grids of paved roads do not exist the way many of us who live in urban environments are used to. Not all roads are paved, and many dirt roads are suspect enough that we could get stuck on them in bad weather and get overtaken by the storm before we were able to deploy the full set of probes. Other paved roads follow natural features such as rivers and end up winding across the landscape rather than following a straight north-south or east-west direction. Our second day in the field was a frustrating experience for exactly this reason – the team was tracking hail-producing storms all day in western South Dakota, but ultimately, we were not able to deploy any disdrometers because by the time we got to a good road to be able to set out the probes, the storm was already passing overhead.
The days in the field were long – I was warned ahead of time that dinner was often very late and sometimes optional – with many hours of driving between locations to get in position to deploy. Most of the hail events occurred in the afternoon and evening hours as convective storms gained enough energy to build up and produce hailstones in the atmosphere through a cycle of updrafts and downdrafts that form “rings” in the hail similar to tree rings as the ice melts and then re-freezes before ultimately falling at high rates of speed to the ground with forceful impacts. After the team deployed the disdrometers ahead of a storm, we would wait for the storm to pass and then go back and collect the probes and start downloading data. Additionally, we would gather a representative sample of stones to measure their dimensions using calipers, take their mass, and take a picture of its unique shape. Many hailstones are spherical like a ball, but many others form unique shapes that have points and edges – some even have complex ridges that look like brains! IBHS has the largest database of hailstone shapes and sizes in the world, including 3D scanned images. This information can be used to create molds of actual stones to re-create them and also helps IBHS manufacture realistic hailstones in the Research Lab using their one-of-a-kind hail machine that I like to call the “Slushinator”.
While being in the field for 7 days straight can be a grind, it can also be a lot of fun! With typical days of conference calls, emails, text messages, meetings, spreadsheets, forms, etc., it is rare to be able to simply be together as a small group with a common mission that everyone is committed to achieving. The IBHS Hail Study is many things – one of those is a tremendous team builder! Everyone in the field wants to be there. Everyone in the field is willing to do whatever is necessary to help the team succeed. Egos are put aside, titles are forgotten, and everyone plays a crucial role. With the downtime the team has waiting for storms to materialize, an impromptu soccer game or competitive game of Euchre (a card game) helps the time pass. Discovering a delicious local pizza joint or catching a glimpse of Mount Rushmore in the distance also helps build morale and reinforces my personal motto – “any day out of the office is a great day at work!”
After 7 days, our mission objectives were accomplished, and it was time to head home to family and friends. I learned a ton about hail that built my knowledge, and my understanding of this peril is now far more than reading articles or white papers and will greatly assist me in my day job. I also know more experts who I can reach out to when I have questions – building my professional network is key in my role and so critical for everyone in today’s working world. Most importantly, I formed new friendships and have vivid memories that will last for a lifetime! My 20-year career in insurance has taken me many places that I never expected to go. It has been an incredibly challenging and rewarding industry to be a part of. While I never planned to get into the P&C industry, I’m so glad that I stumbled into my career as a personal lines property underwriter (Ed. Note: Check out this episode of the podcast to hear about Rob’s journey to underwriting) and thankful for the many wonderful experiences I’ve had, and being a part of the IBHS Hail Study team for a deployment is definitely at the top of the list!!!
[1} From the IBHS website: https://disastersafety.org/about/, accessed July 5, 2017.
 “Hail: The Most Underrated Costly Weather Disaster”. The Weather Channel, July 13, 2017, https://weather.com/storms/severe/news/cost-of-hail-damage, accessed July 23, 2017.
 “Billion-Dollar Weather Disasters at Near Record Pace So Far in 2017”. The Weather Channel, July 10, 2017, https://weather.com/news/weather/news/nine-billion-dollar-weather-disasters-first-half-2017-united-states, accessed on July 23, 2017.
 Vimeo on IBHS Hail Study team deployment of impact disdrometers in the field: https://vimeo.com/219004258, accessed on July 23, 2017.