The (Non) Lessons Learned from Hurricane Irma

We go out in the world and take our chances,
Fate is just the weight of circumstances,
That’s the way that Lady Luck dances,
Roll the bones…
Why does it happen?, Because it happens
Roll the bones”
Roll The Bones – Rush


Here are many of the (non)-lessons I have learned from Hurricane Irma. Maybe they will help you as well.

All models are wrong… Some are useful…

They call them spaghetti models. These are the theoretical hurricane tracks from an ensemble of hurricane forecasting models generated by research teams & government agencies. Here is an example of one from a storm in 2016:

It actually looks like spaghetti. They are messy and the final actual hurricane track may or may not be one of the tracks in this mess so it’s hard to use them until the storms are right on the front door and by then it’s almost too late to do anything.

Contrarily, here is the Hurricane Irma ensemble spaghetti model tracks almost a week before the storm got to the US mainland:

When I saw this I was struck at how tight the spaghetti strands were. The models were in pretty good agreement about the general nature and direction of the storm. I used this image to convince family in Naples, FL to begin thinking about evacuating to my home in New England, WELL BEFORE, everyone else thinks of doing the same thing. (Of course, in the back of my mind, I did think, what if the storm takes the green CTCI track after all? Then I’d look silly for having wasted their time taking kids out of school and shelling a bunch of money to have them fly north). At the end of the day, the models provide another set of information. There is a lot of uncertainty, even as you get close to landfall. We use this information the best we can and place our risky bets (whether they be financial or human). Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Remember that when you see articles blaming the mayor of Houston for NOT evacuating the city. This is of course the same (non) lesson we learned with Harvey: humans struggle with decisions dealing with only bad or worse outcomes. When we get bad outcomes, we often blame decisionmakers for not taking actions that could have produced an even worse outcome. When it comes to natural disasters, there is rarely win-some, it’s almost always lose-some or lose-some more!

Finally, while I thought the models did a great job predicting the track and strength of Irma, the storm surge model really overestimated the potential risk for Florida:

Naples, Florida ended up seeing about a 4-5 foot storm surge when over 10 was expected.

Maybe modeling is like a baseball player’s batting average…where getting it right 1 out 3 is times is considered good?

Natural catastrophes both prior and post event, cause a demand surge – expect shortages

Empty shelves. No gas for miles. No vacancies. Long waits. Stand-still traffic. Delayed claims handling. Power and water outages.

All of these market failures occur because the supply-side of our day-to-day economy cannot handle the massive demand for stuff that occurs both prior to a natural catastrophe (when we know it’s coming) or after a natural catastrophe, whether it be a hurricane, earthquake or really bad weather from severe thunderstorms or winter storms.

This is called demand surge. We joke about it in New England when milk disappears at the first mention of a winter storm warning on the local news. Unfortunately, we have an economic structure that is geared towards efficiently providing goods and services. Efficient systems are generally fragile. Any input outside of what’s expected, can throw the system into chaos. That’s what happens during natural catastrophes. Our inventories and workflows are meticulously efficient based on the prior inventory, workflow and history. Then a storm comes knocking on the door and the shelves get cleaned out and we can’t stock them fast enough because the system wasn’t expecting such a shock, it wasn’t contemplated or planned for. We have the added problem that in the post-event period, the damage makes everything take longer, which adds more costs. This article describes what it was like for one journalist trying to flee. The same article describes some potential solutions. I will endeavor to go deeper into this topic in a future article.

Hurricanes Are Catastrophic and Not That Unusual

This is a repeat bullet from my Harvey article last week. I am throwing it in again because, Irma, was a typical Florida Hurricane. Whether you believe in climate change or not (I will reserve my opinion(s) on the matter for a later set of articles and podcasts), we are in hurricane season and this is exactly the sort of weather that happens within hurricane season, since before Columbus.


Catastrophic Events Almost Always Have Their Own Signature

This was the first storm that I am aware of that barreled up the entire peninsula of Florida. I hope you were paying attention because a storm like Irma will never happen again.


Yes never. There may be a storm that forms that goes up the peninsula sure, but there will never be another storm that has the pressure, wind speed, forward speed, size, and and landfalling precision that Irma did. Irma, as do all storms have their own signature of destruction. Planners are advised not to plan for the next Irma, she isn’t coming back. Something worse might though.

Building Codes Matter

Another repeat bullet from the Harvey article, but so important. South Florida has the best building codes for wind in the country. It mattered. As quoted from my wife’s aunt, who barricaded herself in my sister-in-law’s home: “the wind is howling but the house feels strong, like a fortress”. Florida losses will be lower than expected. I think much of that is due to the strong building codes post-1992 and 2004.

No matter the peril, building codes matter in saving lives and property. Long term costs go down with short term strengthening of building codes.

Florida Was Prepared… Thanks Hurricane Harvey

Millions of people evacuated Florida before Irma arrived. Windows were boarded up and people stayed off the streets.

My guess is that a lot of that would NOT have happened with such gusto if it wasn’t for the news reports about Hurricane Harvey. Harvey scared a lot of people and they did the right thing. If Harvey hadn’t happened, how many residents would have stayed put and placed themselves in harm’s way.  I think a lot more.

About Nick Lamparelli

Nick Lamparelli is a 20+ year veteran of the insurance wars. He has a unique vantage point on the insurance industry. From selling home & auto insurance, helping companies with commercial insurance, to being an underwriter with an excess & surplus lines wholesaler to catastrophe modeling Nick has wide experience in the industry. Over past 10 years, Nick has been focused on the insurance analytics of natural catastrophes and big data. Nick serves as our Chief Evangelist.

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