Sitting in a conference hall at Columbia University seems far away from violence and destruction being caused by Major Hurricane Irma. However, this conference (The Workshop on Atlantic Climate Variability – Dynamics, Prediction and Hurricane Risk) hosts some of the world’s leading experts on hurricane activity and how it is influenced by climate. This means that everyone is distracted and sharing updates on the storm as the presentations continue.
It’s clearly a well-reported storm: conversations on the street and subway can be heard discussing preparations from those with friends and relatives in south-eastern states. As it bears down on the Bahamas and Florida, evacuations are well underway, and preparations are being rushed to completion to protect homes and businesses. Miami-Dade county evacuations alone total some 650,000 people, making it the biggest evacuation in history. These preparations are vital, as this is a dangerous and deadly storm, and after Hurricane Harvey, is confirming the end of the so-called drought of major hurricane landfalls in the U.S.
The storm has already impacted many Caribbean islands. An estimated 1.2 million people have already been affected by Irma; a number expected to increase drastically as it approaches the U.S. The storm is currently passing north of Cuba, and moving over the Bahamas. The northern Lesser Antilles caught some of hurricane winds with widespread damage across Antigua and Barbuda, British Virgin Islands, Anguilla St. Kitts and Nevis, and across to Puerto Rico. After passing north of the Dominican Republic, the Turks and Caicos have recently been pummelled with 15-20 foot storm surge and high winds, and at least 14 deaths reported at the time of writing.
The storm itself has recently grown in size after going through an eye-wall replacement cycle overnight. This has weakened the storm slightly, but is normally followed by a reorganisation and expansion of the wind field, meaning that the hurricane force winds now extend further from the centre. Over the next 36-48 hours, Irma will remain in favourable conditions of light shear and warm sea surface temperatures, meaning that it is not expected to weaken and that there is high confidence on the intensity of the storm maintaining through to Florida.
Impacts across Floridian counties will be severe, as the storm is expected to make landfall on Saturday night or Sunday morning. Widespread gusts of over 100 mph, with maximum winds close to the eye-wall surrounding the eye itself. Storm surge for Florida is likely to be around 7-10 feet, and 12-18 inches of rain are expected. Power is likely to be out for a long time, so much of the state, and as the recovery efforts get underway, resources will be limited so preparations are essential.
Information can be found on the official National Hurricane Center page, which updates its forecasts multiple times a day.
The Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility is being called upon to support recovery efforts from Irma. The government of Antigua and Barbuda, Anguilla and St. Kitts and Nevis are likely to receive around $15-16 million, based on parametric triggers activated by the major hurricane. Quick responses can be crucial in recovery efforts, and payouts are likely to be received within days. The triggers are not just for wind, but excess rainfall can also initiate payout calculations for those in the scheme. These will be assessed as the rainfall data is collected and verified, but may provide a second wave of financial support to governments of countries affected.
In terms estimations for insured losses, one estimate by a Lloyd’s Realistic Disaster Scenario is in the order of around $130 billion, based on a landfall between Biscayne Bay and Miami Beach, which is within the cone of uncertainty of the forecast track of Irma, and so worth considering as a worst case. The loss is broken down in to residential, commercial auto and marine insurance, but also notes that the Insurance-Linked Securities (ILS) market would absorb a significant amount. Live cat interest is starting to emerge which would be used to back-up reinsurance coverages.
Exact losses are very difficult to predict at this stage, given the range of possible landfall locations, and range of impacts from such a severe storm. Willis Re and the Willis Research Network are also providing regular updates on the storm’s progress with details commentaries from our Willis Research Network partners.
Hot on the heels of Hurricane Harvey, for the first time in 7 years three hurricanes: Irma, Jose and Katia, are active simultaneously in the Atlantic basin. Atlantic hurricane activity was relatively steady earlier in the season, but forecasts issued in July and early August were commenting on how well-primed the Atlantic was for hurricane to develop through peak season. In an earlier blog, I highlighted a hurricane season forecast summary from one of our Willis Research Network partners at the National Centre of Atmospheric Research, which details what was being predicted; but, with such ferocity from Irma, it’s easy to wish these forecasts were not so well-founded.
While I write this, the scientific conference presentations continue with discussions on climate variability, such as ENSO and the Atlantic Multi-decadal Oscillation, and how they may affect hurricane activity, in current climate conditions and a future warmer world. Catastrophic events, such as Hurricane Irma and Harvey, highlight the importance of developing an understanding of our climate system, and refocus the efforts by academia and the insurance industry to find new ways to quantify extreme risk and providing financial resilience when they strike.