Natural hazards such as earthquake, hurricane, floods, fires and volcanic eruptions have been one of the key motivations for mankind's development of science and technology. Recent advances have accelerated this progress, and there are now emerging key technologies for controlling the impacts of catastrophes on society in general, and particularly the insurance industry. This article briefly discusses some of these technologies, and their application.

A number of different questions arise from natural hazards, for which decisions are required. In the broadest sense, these questions (and the types of persons trying to make these decisions) may be categorized as one of four types:

A. Is it a problem? - that is, what are order of magnitude estimates of the casualties or financial costs, either on a scenario or probabilistic basis? (owners, insurers, planners, emergency responders).

B. Is it really a problem? - that is, refine the loss estimates, and determine their accuracy and sensitivity to input data. (planners, design professionals, risk-takers such as the insurance industry).

C. What if? - how are the potential losses reduced by various mitigation measures (building and structural retrofitting, barriers, emergency planning, insurance, etc)? (owners, planners, policy-makers, design professionals).

D. What's happening or just happened? - given a warning or immediately following an event, provide as detailed as possible loss estimates tailored to the event. (owners, reinsurers, emergency responders, claims managers).

Beginning in the 1970s and especially accelerating in the 1990s, a variety of loss estimation and emergency management software packages have been developed, to aid decision-makers in addressing the above questions. Applications include earthquake, hurricane, flood, wildland fire and hazmat release. A few of the packages are:

  • Hazard Analysis: FRISK, SLOSH, TAOS, HEC2

  • General Loss Estimation: HAZUS(tm), EQEHAZARD(tm), HURSIM(tm), TORRISK(tm)

  • For the insurance industry: USWIND(tm), USQUAKE(tm), WorldCat(tm)

  • For emergency responders: EIS/GEM(tm), EPEDAT(tm), MIDAS(tm), FARSITE(tm)

    These packages differ significantly, depending on the intended user and/or decision-maker. Some are heavily GIS-based, while others stress sophisticated treatment of probability and uncertainty. Some require significant “population” with data, while others are provided with default databases. The USWIND(tm) and USQUAKE(tm) software packages developed by EQE International, for example, are GIS-based analysis engines for the management of insurance and real estate portfolios. Figure 2 shows the hurricane database in USWIND, while Figure 1 shows a default building inventory for use in USWIND, and Figure 3 shows an example of detailed soils data used in USQUAKE. This data is combined to develop a detailed understanding of the risk confronting communities, insurers or property and facility managers. Figure 4, for example, shows results generated for the California Earthquake Authority, using USQUAKE - this formed the basis for pricing of the largest earthquake insurance pool in the world.

    Future directions for development of these technologies include:

  • Hazards: Better information is being developed for soils, fuels, hydrology... - that is, more detailed (microzoned) mapping of the constituent variables making up a hazard. Perforce, this also requires that the hazard algorithms become more sophisticated (eg, that they progress from empirical seismic attenuation regressions, to simulation of shaking).

  • Exposure: Better information on building inventories and the infrastructure, developed from remote sensing and other sources.

  • Real-time: An important application of these technologies is their real-time application, for emergency response, search and rescue, financial response and other needs. Remote sensing is a vital technology for the rapid data acquisition required for real-time decision-making. Figure 5 shows, for example, Landsat 5 imagery from the August 1999 Turkey earthquake, in which the burning Tupras oil refinery can be clearly seen.

  • Management integration: This is perhaps the least developed, and the most exciting. Most of the tools discussed above simply provide answers to questions - that is, they are part of one step in the management process. The development of true decision-support systems, where resources, options and expert systems are combined with the next generation of loss estimation software, is the next step.

    Development of these technologies is proceeding rapidly, and involves painstaking ‘ground-truthing'. Figures 6(a) and (b), for example, show an international team1 in Turkey soon after the August 1999 earthquake there, gathering data on the ground, for comparison and analysis versus remotely sensed data2. Research such as this is increasing the reliability of rapidly acquired data, to the point where confident real-time decision-making can be made.

  • Charles Scawthorn is senior vice president of EQE International, Oakland, CA, and Ronald Eguchi is from EQE International, Irvine, CA and ImageCat Inc., La Palma, CA.

    1 Supported in part by the Multi-disciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research, SUNY-Buffalo.

    2 Eguchi, R. et al The Marmara Earthquake: A View from Space, in The Marmara Turkey Earthquake of August 17, 1999: Reconnaissance Report, C. Scawthorn, Editor, Technical Report MCEER-00-0001, Multi-disciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research, SUNY-Buffalo.