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Insurers Are Going High-Tech to Mitigate Risk This Hurricane Season

May 31, 2019, 3:45 PM UTC

June 1 is the start of hurricane season—coming just as the Midwest reaches the end of extended brutal cold, snow, flooding, and tornadoes that have collectively driven damages into the billions.

You’d think big insurers would have taken a beating given the Biblical weather. But it turns out they are, by and large, more prepared for the changing climate and catastrophic weather than the rest of the business world. Insurers are using a barrage of tech tools and analytic capabilities to help spot and mitigate risk before disaster strikes, and model changing topography and the likelihood of fire, flooding and other natural disasters. To that end, Allstate shares are up about 2% since March 1, right before the flooding started. Insurance holding company Progressive Corporation has seen a 1% gain over the time. The Travelers Companies, up over 9%. Chubb, 8%.

Spot the Problems

“Our approach is all about preventing loss,” said Kevin Ingram, CFO at FM Global, a mutual commercial property insurance carrier that has also been by far the largest private carrier of commercial flood insurance according to statutory filings as reported by Insurance Journal. “Flood is very easy to model and understand the exposure. There are also a lot of interesting ways to provide protection.”

“Two or three years ago, we developed our own global flood map,” said Brion Callori, senior vice president and manager, engineering and research at FM Global. By the end of the year, Callori expects the company’s flood maps to reach a 30-meter (about 100 feet) resolution, which will be better than the maps available from the federal government. The finer the resolution, the more specifically an insurer can understand whether a given property runs a higher flood risk or not. FM Global will be able to more carefully set insurance availability and coverage limits to reduce its risk.

The types of analysis that go into such mapping are complex. ” We create a catalog of probabilistic events, hundreds and thousands of these events, that not only allow us to do the modeling, but with the mapping we have we can go down to the level of individual homes in many cases,” said Mohit Pande, head of property underwriting for the U.S. and Canada at reinsurer Swiss Re.

The approach of mapping applies to other types of threats like earthquake or fire. “We had historical maps of where fires had been,” said Ed Chanda, national sector leader of KPMG’s insurance practice. “What we’ve had in the past two years is fires going where they traditionally haven’t. Some companies have done some pretty heroic things, dispatching people … to an insured’s house to trim the trees and put down retardant foam. Which is great, but why weren’t we doing it six months before? We have satellites and planes. Why did we let the forest get so close.”

Reduce Risk

Risk mitigation has become a large focus of the insurance industry. The idea? Spend upfront, and cut big losses later.

Travelers is looking at proximity sensors, both on workers and equipment, as a way of reducing workers compensation claims. One approach is to warn workers when they step inside a dangerous area or to alert them when in proximity of large equipment.

A second use is in measuring personal ergonomics in warehouses. Traditionally, the company would do an audit and watch each person. “It’s not that it’s a bad method, but with technology we can do more,” said Woody Dwyer, second vice president of workers compensation risk control. Travelers was able to measure ergonomic risk, like how people moved and twisted to lift objects, electronically. A company can then redesign warehouse layouts to make them safer and identify less experienced workers, who move in riskier ways, for additional training.

Nationwide, a property and casualty insurer, has invested in a tech company, Betterview, that tries to predict which roofs in an area are most likely to sustain damage. Using imagery, mostly from satellites and manned aircraft, the company can analyze the roof of a given property with computer vision and software models. It uses various characteristics, “like if a roof is damaged or worn or show other types of risk,” said co-founder and CEO David Lyman. By looking at historical images and results after major hurricanes, the company claims it can predict which roofs are more likely to sustain extensive damage in a storm.

“We go into a customer and run their properties through it and then give them that number,” said co-founder and COO David Tobias. “You can use our data and say we’re not going to insure that property.” But there’s also risk mitigation. The company can detect the amount of tree overhang that could fall on a roof, allowing the insurer to recommend trimming or even to send a crew out.

Home Front

Some insurers are reaching into homes to address problems before they happen. Erie Insurance has begun a pilot program, working with Roost Home Telematics, to install sensors in homes to collect and analyze water and freeze related data. “It monitors the humidity of wherever you place it,” said Bob Buckel, vice president and product manager. Once contacted by water, the sensor can set off an alarm in the home and send an alert to the owner’s smartphone.

“Too often people have water problems in their home when a pipe might break while their on vacation and they come home to a real mess,” Buckel said. “The mitigation would eliminate or seriously limit the claim to them and seriously limit what we pay out, that’s for sure. Through anecdotal data we’ve seen that it’s helped several people avoid larger claims and overall we’re encouraged by what we’ve seen so far.” But it will likely take some years to collect enough data across several thousand participating homes to understand whether there is a payoff.

PURE Insurance offers the help of inspectors to examine potential weak points. “The way that we’re approaching mitigation is with a team of professionals that understand the risks that our members are most likely to face,” said Jason Metzger, senior vice president. Sometime in the future, the company plans to send risk managers into home and perform actions like taking an image of a water heater and then running it through artificial intelligence-enabled computer vision to find the make, likely lifespan, and check for recall notices.

The carrier also installs fire suppression units, pre-filled with water or gel, on homes in areas vulnerable to wild fires. If the heat rises too much, the device protects the exterior of the home. Although they have yet to have an outfitted house approached by a fire, “when we’ve watched it in testing, the stuff that gets sprayed all over the house doesn’t get burned,” Metzger said.

Insurers can’t stop natural disasters from happening. But so far, they’ve certainly been able to avoid getting caught in a fiscal tornado.

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