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Jonathan Jackson’s Insurance Journal article on how to prepare for flash flooding

At the beginning of September, Previsico’s CEO Jonathan Jackson authored an article for the Insurance Journal titled: “Six Ways to Stop Burning Man From Becoming ‘Muddy Man’ Next Year”. Please see below to read the full article:

Over 70,000 Burning Man festival-goers were stranded in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert following heavy rain over the weekend. The Pershing County Sheriff’s Office said one person died during the rain, though details about how the death occurred were not released.

This devastation is a stark reminder of the increasing impact of flooding, especially flash flooding in unexpected places more prone to drought.

Flooding continues to be the most common and costly natural disaster in North America, with flood-related disasters causing more than $85 billion in damage and economic losses in 2021 alone. These events weaken and destroy infrastructure, upend the livelihoods of families and businesses, and even cause chaos at sporting events, co, and festivals like Burning Man.

Globally, on average, it is getting hotter everywhere, with warmer, wetter air, resulting in more powerful storms. These conditions increasingly create more flooding and largely unmodelled flash flooding, a growing threat worldwide, and the US is no exception.

The increase in flash flooding in traditionally dryer places has been difficult to forecast, meaning that citizens often need more preparation for these disasters. For example, last year’s longer and delayed monsoon season in the Southwest resulted in a devastating flash flood in Las Vegas in August 2022.

“More people will have to learn not just how to survive floods but also how to better live with ever-increasing flash floods,” said Yang Hong, a professor of hydrology and remote sensing in the School of Civil Engineering and Environmental Science and in the School of Meteorology at Oklahoma University.

“The 20-year return floods will more likely occur every two to five years, especially alarming for the emerging flashiness hotspots that will be facing unprecedented challenges with aging infrastructure and outdated flood risk measures. There is a pressing need to implement climate-resilient engineering infrastructure and develop smart hydrological early warning systems.”

So, what do insurers need to know about the rise in flash flooding events in deserts and landlocked geographies?

Why more flash flooding

The answer comes in two parts. First, our climate has become less predictable. Take, for example, Hurricane Hilary, which recently brought Southern California its first-ever tropical storm watch, according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC). Fortunately, by the time it came inland, it had been downgraded to a major storm, and it was only by good fortune there was not more of an impact from flooding.

The second factor is the prevalence of parched soils in dry areas, such as Las Vegas and Black Rock Desert. When soil is too dry, it will repel water rather than absorb it. Bring theses two factors together, and it’s easy to see why flash floods can be more devastating in drylands than in wetter areas. The water just runs off and down the land, often with no advanced warning.

In these dry areas, drought has historically been more of a concern than flooding, so when there is a flash flood, people and properties are unprotected, as opposed to settlements near rivers or on floodplains, which are much more used to dealing with the impact of flooding.

How to prepare for flash floods

Climate researchers have been delving into the growing challenge of flash flooding vulnerability in dryland communities. Their findings not only underscore the gravity of this issue, but also pinpoints six critical research priorities aimed at guiding practitioners, policymakers, and researchers in modeling, assessing, and mitigating the risk of flash floods in such areas.

Here are those six priorities:

  1. Data collection and risk mapping. Most dryland regions need more data to evaluate the likelihood and consequences of flash floods due to limited resources and understanding within national governments. Paradoxically, increased data availability could potentially lead to reduced governmental investment in high-risk areas, thus exacerbating vulnerability.
  2. Early warning systems. This includes strategically placed IoT-enabled devices in places like small streams and culverts. Establishing preparation and response plans at a governmental level could proactively allocate rescue resources and safeguard communities. However, the challenge lies in the absence of infrastructure for such systems, particularly in low and middle-income areas, due to insufficient funding, data, and models for these areas.
  3. Boosting flood resilience. Enhancing resilience against sudden floods in arid regions is essential to protect people and property. While major infrastructure projects like dams and barriers can shield dryland settlements from flash floods, their high costs make them unattainable for low-income regions. Nature-based alternatives, such as reforestation and flood diversion strategies in California, offer more affordable solutions. Permeable pavements and rainwater harvesting in residential areas can also help.
  4. Resettlement planning. Should Burning Man be relocated to a safer place? Researchers are also looking at planning for long-term resettlement. Governments in flood-prone zones are advised to create temporary and even permanent resettlement strategies. These strategies draw from successful measures seen in tsunami-prone Indonesia and hurricane-affected regions in the US. China’s proactive relocation of over 600,000 people from flash flood-prone zones sets an example for long-term resettlement efforts.
  5. Risk transfer schemes. Financial support must extend beyond post-disaster aid. Risk-transfer schemes like flood insurance and catastrophe bonds are recommended for dryland areas. China’s weather index insurance and Algeria’s mandatory catastrophe insurance exhibit promising models. However, affordability remains a challenge, as insurance might be beyond the means of families residing in flood-prone zones.
  6. Increased public awareness. Residents of drylands must be educated about the risks associated with flash floods and appropriate responses. State and local governments should be encouraging adaptive behaviors and precautionary measures. Installing flood protection structures, understanding evacuation routes, and avoiding flood-prone areas are among a few of the recommended actions. More research is needed to determine effective communication strategies and understand how risk perception influences responses to avoid ‘cry wolf’ scenarios.

Looking ahead, the escalating impact of climate change is likely to continue to intensify the frequency and severity of flash floods in drylands. Global dryland flash flooding rates surged 20-fold between 2000 and 2022 compared to the preceding century.

The issue is clearly not going away. Knowing this, it’s more vital than ever to take steps to minimize global flooding impacts through advanced forecasting and IoT sensor solutions, facilitating proactive mitigation strategies for insurers and their customers.

With the timely flood warnings in place, not only can business and life go on, but sporting events and festivals should be able to continue, with flood mitigation methods put into place, so we do not have a repeat of incidents like Burning Man 2023.

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