J3.2 Communicating weather, climate and catastrophe risk and preparedness

Wednesday, 26 January 2011: 8:45 AM
611 (Washington State Convention Center)
Jeanne Salvatore, Insurance Information Institute, New York, NY

More than half of the world's costliest catastrophes have occurred since 2001. While the decade has witnessed natural disasters on an unprecedented scale, many in the scientific community say the worst is yet to come, with predictions that natural disasters will be both more frequent and more severe. Here's the problem: Most people think disasters will not happen to them, so they underinsure and fail to properly prepare. To complicate matters further, after a significant catastrophic event occurs, memories of the calamity fade fast, despite the visible aftereffects that remain. People have difficulty comprehending that the low probability of a natural disaster is not synonymous with the absence of any probability. People choose to live in flood areas, earthquake zones and hurricane alley, ignoring the dangers and, in many cases, viewing warnings about their vulnerability as an overreaction and intrusive. Across the globe, more expensive structures are built in harm's way, bringing population density in areas of greatest risk for natural disasters. The communication opportunity is to put the reality of risk into the context of cumulative catastrophic events of the past decade to demonstrate a trend that is expected to continue. Since 1968, the Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.) has conducted an annual national poll to assess public opinion related to changing attitudes toward property and casualty insurance and to the public perception of risk. For insurers, risk is the chance of loss on an insured person or entity. Our poll results show that the public's perception of risk does change over time – and that many people have short memories. In years immediately following a natural disaster, people generally seem to be more aware of their vulnerability, and they act accordingly. However, as time passes without a significant rerun of a major disaster in their area, they relax their proactive stance – often to their detriment. As a communications organization with 50 years devoted to insurance education, the I.I.I. recognizes that serving the public requires using multiple communication channels to inform diverse audiences before, during and long after a catastrophe strikes. Economic losses from natural disasters occurring over the past 10 years requires that consumers are informed about the very real risks of future losses. As the leading provider of insurance-related data and resources to consumers, researchers, businesses and media, the I.I.I. recognizes the role that social media plays in reaching diverse audiences, and we're aware that the realities of the natural disasters of the future require deeper engagement in conversations that address future disaster risk. Global natural catastrophe loss trends are ominous and portend an even more disastrous decade ahead. Terrorism, environmental and other man-made disasters could exacerbate the trend. And, yet thousands of people gamble with the one thing that will help them recover in the event of a major disaster: insurance. Too many people are not aware of the real risks, and current economic conditions are forcing more consumers to think about short-term finances over long-term needs. Insurance losses in the decade of the 2000s were more than double that of the 1990s. And, the worst is yet to come. A poll we conducted in May 2010 showed that 10 percent of Americans now say they have a flood insurance policy, down from 13 percent a year ago and 17 percent in May 2008. Sixteen percent of Americans believe their homeowners insurance policy covers damage from flooding during a hurricane, compared with 24 percent a year earlier. This is positive news, but still surprising that such a high proportion of consumers do not know that the federal government has provided flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program since 1968. A separate poll the I.I.I. conducted in Louisiana and Mississippi showed that 32 percent of people in those two states think they are covered for flooding in their homeowners policy. That is double the U.S. average as a whole, a startling statistic in light of the devastation experienced during Hurricane Katrina. Clearly, as weather risk is communicated, many are getting only portions of the message. The past decade was history's most expensive for natural disasters. Long trend data shows an increasing share of insured catastrophe losses will come from the developing world, especially China and India.

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