At least the executives at risk manager and insurer Aon understand what the victims of Hurricane Sandy are going through. Aon’s building in lower Manhattan was taken out by the storm as the aptly named Water Street location was swamped by Sandy’s 12-foot storm surge.
“It’s a good thing Aon is a big company with offices in New Jersey, Chicago and Boston,” says Rick Miller, chief broking officer at Aon Risk Solutions’ U.S. property practice, speaking from a dry Aon office in Boston. “There are a lot of companies in lower Manhattan where their whole business was in one building that had to be closed down because of the flooding.”
Estimates of insured losses from the huge late-season tropical storm are likely to pass $20 billion, while the overall impact reportedly could top $50 billion, meaning a huge portion of the losses will not be covered by insurance. A fair share of both the insured losses and the uncovered losses, Miller says, will involve business interruption, or BI.
“For commercial property, the impact of this storm on the BI side could be as big as the property losses,” says Duncan Ellis, U.S. property practice leader at Marsh. “Some of the buildings in lower Manhattan could be empty for some time, which could trigger lease terminations or abatements. A lot of the buildings on Water Street still have four feet of water in their lobbies.” (Marsh’s Manhattan building was also closed for several days after the storm.)
Ellis, pictured at left, says many office towers in the financial district have their basements and sub-basements filled with water. Because most of them had heating oil stored in the basement and in many cases parking garages full of vehicles as well, the water is contaminated with oil and gas and cannot simply be pumped out into the surrounding river. It will have to be trucked out —a long slow process—before crews can begin to repair elevator motors and electric grids.
The financial district was not the only area that lost power. Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island did as well, and even two weeks after the storm, parts of Long Island and New Jersey remain without power.
“I think a lot of companies were caught by surprise by the extent of the damage and disruption,” Ellis says.
Despite the chaos and supply chain disruptions that were caused by the dramatic flood in Thailand earlier this year and the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami disaster last year, “I think the attitude here was, ‘That is not the kind of thing that happens here,’” Ellis says, adding that there may also have been an attitude in the New York metropolitan area that, “We’re resilient. We can handle anything.”
“There should have been lessons learned from Thailand and Japan,” agrees Tom Teixeira, practice leader for global markets at Willis. “Clearly they weren’t.”
He warns that many companies that suffered business interruption losses because of power failures, supply chain interruptions, loss of entry and egress for workers or loss of access to customers may find that the BI coverage they thought they had isn’t there.
Teixeira cites the example of a company that lost money because its employees couldn’t make it in to work. If “their loss coverage is for power outages, they won’t have BI coverage,” Teixeira says, explaining that typically BI coverage only applies to interruptions caused by types of damage listed in the property coverage. “If you’re covered for the damage that causes the interruption, your BI coverage applies, too,” he says. “If not, you don’t have BI coverage.”
That said, there are steps companies that suffered BI losses from the storm should be taking now to boost the chances of recovery through their insurance coverage.
“Documentation is key, and that means saving things like e-mail and other correspondence with suppliers and customers to be able to demonstrate that any financial documentation of loss is supported by ancillary documents,” says Drew Olson, senior manager at BDO Consulting in Chicago. “The key is being able to show that losses are related to Sandy, and to covered damage.”
"Obviously risk managers are not the ones communicating with customers and suppliers,” says Olson, pictured at left. “So they need to tell the departments that are communicating with them that they need to be collecting those documents.”
Going forward, Teixeira notes that many companies have skimped on insurance because they’re trying to cut costs. Others ran into supply problems because they reduced back-up inventory, also in the name of cutting costs. He advises companies to do a full risk assessment in the wake of Sandy. “They need a strategy,” Teixeira says. “How much risk are you going to maintain? Will you cut costs or increase your buffer stocks? They also should do stress tests, not just on the company, but on the suppliers.”
Olson also offers a word of understanding. “This was a very unique storm—a 100-year phenomenon that would have been hard to anticipate.”
“Risk management is a cost/benefit affair. You try to think up doomsday scenarios and plan for them, but there are costs of doing that too,” Olson notes. “You could re-engineer your operations at great expense and buy coverage and then never need it, because this won’t happen again for decades.”