Storm Surge in Your Lobby: You Should Have Been Thinking About Hurricane Isaac Months Ago

[author: J. Wylie Donald]

12 feet.  Water that deep comfortably inundates the front office's front door and floats the boss's desk.  And that is the predicted maximum storm surge for coastal Louisiana and Mississippi as Hurricane Isaac bears down.   So there are likely to be a few problems in that part of the country by the time the sun goes down this afternoon.  What can be done?  At this late hour, very little unfortunately, other than heading for the hills; here the adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” says it all.

Other than sand bags and plywood sheeting what preventive steps have some taken?  We’d like to focus on some things lawyers and businesspeople can address ahead of time:  modeling, insurance and contracting.

Modeling – Besides wreaking record havoc, Hurricane Andrew in 1992 was the coming of age for catastrophe modelers. As reported by Business Insurance last week, when AIR Worldwide reported an estimated $13 billion in damage to its clients following the storm's passage, reaction ranged from “skepticism to outrage.”   Now modeling is big business and well accepted.  Indeed, modeling was approved by the Maryland Court of Appeals as an appropriate way to make business decisions in January of this year.  See People's Insurance Counsel Division v. Allstate Insurance Co., 36 A.3d 464 (Md. 2012). There is no reason to believe that Maryland’s lead would not be followed elsewhere.

Today the public can get the benefit of some of the modelers’ insight in email alerts from companies’ such as AIR, or simply downloading them from the internet.  Those following Hurricane Isaac were able to learn that its ultimate effect was unsettled: 

Isaac reaching hurricane status tonight leaves 24 hours of time for additional development prior to landfall; within that window, Isaac could reach Category 2 intensity. How much stronger Isaac will become will depend in part on the storm's track—that is, how much time it will spend over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  Further adding to the uncertainty around Isaac’s forecast intensity is the fact that the storm will be moving over some of the warmest waters it has encountered to date, so a period of rapid intensification that leads to even stronger winds cannot be ruled out.

Subscribers to services offered by modeling firms can assess their exposures long before a hurricane makes landfall and take steps to diversify or minimize risks, can optimize their response to a looming hurricane by shifting production or scheduling a shutdown, and can make time-critical decisions as the catastrophe unfolds with the best data available concerning not only the storm’s effect on one’s own facility, but on the infrastructure and other plants on which one’s facility depends. Including such modeling in business planning leads to improvement of the bottom line.

Insurance – It is well-documented that insurers don’t particularly care for flood risk, including storm surge.  Following Hurricane Katrina dozens of cases sought insurance coverage for storm surge. The courts were not sympathetic; most found flood exclusions and anti-concurrent causation clauses valid and applicable. For example, where homeowners did not purchase flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program after being told by their carrier “Your policy does not cover flood loss. You can get protection through the National Flood Insurance Program,” the Fifth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s ruling and stated, among other things, “The omission of the specific term "storm surge" does not create ambiguity in the policy regarding coverage available in a hurricane and does not entitle the Leonards to recovery for their flood-induced damages.”  Leonard v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 499 F.3d 419, 438 (5th Cir. 2007).  Commercial insureds fared no better.  E.g., Northrop Grumman Corp. v. Factory Mut. Ins. Co., 538 F.3d 1090, modified, 563 F.3d 777 (9th Cir. 2008).

All of which is not to say that flood coverage is not available, but one has to actively seek it out, and pay for it.  This has important implications for supply chain coverage because if one's policy does not cover flood, and one's key supplier (scheduled under the contingent business interruption coverage) is shut down (as happened to many last year with Thailand's epic flooding), then there will be no coverage.  In other words, flood risk must be assessed at all relevant locations, not simply the insured's locations. 

Contracting away risk – Considering storm surge, one researcher has written:  "In many places, only inches separate the once-a-decade flood from the once-a-century one; and separate the water level communities have prepared for, from the one no one has seen.  Critically, a small change can make a big difference, like the last inch of water that overflows a tub."  Ben Strauss et al., Surging Seas 4 (Mar. 14, 2012).  We saw just above that insurance may not be available for a storm surge.  Is there any other path to recovery? 

Some that have purchased properties that have subsequently suffered flood damage have pursued their transaction professionals for the loss based on the theory that there should have been some disclosure.  They have had some success.  See, e.g., Perri v. Prestigious Homes, Inc., Docket No. A-0403-10T1 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. Jan. 13, 2012) (suing broker for flood damage); Stonacek v. City of Lincoln, 782 N.W.2d 900 (Neb. 2010) (suing realtor, developer, engineer and city for ensuing water damage from flood); Loya v. Howard Hanna Smythe Cramer Co., 2009 Ohio 448 (Ohio Ct. App. 2009) (suing realtor for ensuing water damage from flood); Potter v. First Real Estate Co., 844 So. 2d 540 (Ala. 2002) (suing realtor based on flooding); Clay v. Walden Joint Venture, 611 So. 2d 254 (Ala. 1992) (referring to suit against realtor for flood damage).  It is relatively easy, however, to inoculate oneself against that kind of suit:  make the disclosure in the contract.  Realtors and sellers in Norfolk, Virginia apparently already do that. For a more detailed discussion see J. Wylie Donald, Getting Ahead of Storm Surge, Especially in an Era of Climate Change.

Sand bags and plywood sheeting are irreplaceable as a hurricane roars in.  Maybe one should start including other preventive steps as equally necessary in order to avoid the proverbial several pounds of cure.