Reducing Natural Disaster Losses:
A Blueprint for Achievement

Harvey G. Ryland
Insurance Institute for
Property Loss Reduction
Boston, MA


Each year natural disasters take a huge toll on our nation - a toll that is measured in deaths, injuries, property damage and economic loss. The member insurance companies of the Insurance Institute for Property Loss Reduction (IIPLR) believe that this toll can be reduced. They envision a nation that builds the safest and most damage-resistant structures possible to protect its citizens. To enable that vision to become a reality, IIPLR's members have directed the organization to fulfill a critically important mission: to reduce injuries, human suffering, deaths, property damage and economic loss caused by natural disasters.

In implementing its mission, IIPLR will be guided by a "blueprint for achievement" - our new Strategic Plan. The organization will dedicate its resources to addressing five natural hazards: earthquake, flood, wildfire, hail and windstorms. Each of these will be addressed in the context of the following Key Result Areas (KRAs):

This paper will provide a brief overview of these Key Result Areas and the goals and objectives of each. These, in conjunction with associated strategies and projects, have been developed to establish IIPLR as the nationally recognized, credible resource on natural hazard mitigation.

Understanding and Addressing Risk

The first half of this decade has seen a regular occurrence of what might be described as "high profile" disaster events: Oakland, California wildfires (1991); Hurricane Andrew (1992); Hurricane Iniki (1992); Midwest floods (1993); Malibu, California wildfires (1993); Northridge Earthquake (1994); Hurricane Opal (1995), Hurricane Fran (1996) and this winter's Northwest floods and snowstorms are among the events that have made national headlines. This list does not reflect the thousands of tornadoes, windstorms, snowstorms, floods and the like that occurred in the same time frame but were not given the same scope of attention. While this latter group might not meet our national measurement for "big" disasters, people and structures are negatively impacted by them. On a local scale and in the realm of personal experience they are, indeed, significant events.

In spite of all of that Mother Nature has thrown our way it is amazing to discover that, on the whole, we still remain under-educated about and even unaware of the natural hazards that can completely alter lives in a matter of minutes. Therefore, the first Key Result Area of IIPLR's Strategic Plan is Public Outreach. Its objective is to ensure that all stakeholders (policy and decision makers, the insurance industry, businesses, emergency managers, the media, planners, lenders, designers, builders and the general public) are aware of natural hazards and understand the associated risks. They will know how to reduce these risks and protect themselves, their families, their homes and their businesses.
It is our hope that through greater understanding people will truly want to reduce the level of risk to which they are exposed. They will only build, buy and use structures that are disaster safe. In addition, all of the stakeholders will understand incentives for mitigation and the associated benefits of such action. An initial project in this area will be to develop a pilot program designed to prove and demonstrate the benefits of a community-wide natural disaster mitigation program.

We live in a society where other types of risk have moved into the realm of public values: fire safety, auto safety, smoking and other issues related to our personal well-being to name a few. It is IIPLR's plan to conduct an information and education program designed to instill a new public value - natural disaster mitigation.

Where We Build

As a nation founded on principles of individual freedom, the right to acquire land and build on it with minimal restrictions is an integral part of our culture. Since virtually all areas of our nation are at risk from some type of natural hazard it would be unrealistic to think that all structures could be placed in locales that are completely "risk free."

We can, however, do a better job of evaluating potential risks as they relate to where structures are sited and the manner in which communities are developed. IIPLR's second Key Result Area is Community Land Use. Its objective is to promote locating structures out of high risk areas that are subject to floods, hailstorms, wildland fires, earthquakes and windstorms.

Land use policy and decision makers need to understand the vulnerability of individual properties to natural hazards, and consider that vulnerability in their land use, development and construction decisions. Consumers (owners and developers) have to be educated about the natural hazards associated with building sites and utilize this information when selecting such sites. IIPLR will work with other partners to develop incentives for not building in high risk areas or for using special mitigation techniques. An initial project in this area will be to promote the adoption of procedures by state and local governments requiring consideration of natural hazards vulnerability in making land use decisions.

How We Build

Efforts in KRAs one and two will be of diminished value without attention being given to the structures in which we live and work. The "blueprint's" third Key Result Area focuses on the Construction of New Buildings. Its objective is to ensure that all new structures will be designed, engineered and constructed using up-to-date techniques and materials that mitigate natural disaster risks. Property owners, developers and contractors must be encouraged to apply these techniques and materials. The benefits of such application must be made clear. Further, it is essential that we continue to develop new hazard resistant construction materials, testing and certification capabilities, and structural design and engineering techniques.

Another item which must be given consideration in this area is building codes. IIPLR is an active participant in the model code organizations. It is our belief that one of the best means for reducing potential harm to life and property is the adoption of statewide building codes. Proper adherence to and enforcement of building codes, both residential and commercial, is essential to a more resilient built environment.

As an initial project in this Key Result Area, IIPLR will establish a "Seal of Approval" program. It will be designed to provide recognition and incentives for incorporating mitigation features in new construction.

Since the vast percentage of our nation's building stock exists already, what steps can be taken to improve its resistance to natural disasters? This is the fourth Key Result Area, Retrofit Existing Structures. Its objective is to promote the strengthening of existing structures to mitigate natural disaster risks. Working with our partners, cost-effective techniques for retrofitting existing structures will be developed and incentives will be established that will encourage all stakeholders to apply these techniques.

Given the scope of this nation's retrofit needs, IIPLR has established an initial prioritization of its efforts in this area. Our first steps will be to promote retrofitting high "people risk" structures, public safety structures, life line structures, and structures located in high-risk zones. As such, our inaugural project will be to work with partners to retrofit every public and non-profit day care center in the country.

Making our entire built environment more resilient to natural hazards is only common sense. The immediate post-event loss of life and property will be diminished and the long term socio-economic health of our communities will be preserved.

Assimilating and Disseminating Information

The final element needed to achieve this "blueprint" is our fifth Key Result Area, Information Management. Its objective is to provide for the collection, analysis, and dissemination of natural disaster loss and mitigation information. This will support the development of a credible, accurate and comprehensive natural disaster risk, loss data and mitigation information system. IIPLR will be able to utilize this information system in identifying mitigation opportunities and as a guide in determining future IIPLR mitigation activities. It will also serve as a resource for IIPLR members and others.

Although we exist in the "information age" and in a culture that is very data intensive, the absence of organized and uniform data pertaining to natural disaster losses is quite surprising. This is why we are developing a database of insurance industry paid losses from such events. We will also look for opportunities to coordinate with partners in the collection and analysis of other types of post-event data.

An interactive World Wide Web site is under development that will provide links not only to IIPLR but to other information sources as well. It will serve as one information management tool designed to provide rapid and efficient access to mitigation related data.


IIPLR cannot implement this "blueprint" by itself. The participation of partners representing all sectors is vital to achieving our cause. Mitigating natural hazard losses is too big a task for a single group, industry, or sector to take on alone. We will work with federal, state and municipal agencies as well as with other organizations and stakeholders, i.e., utilities, banks and lenders, realtors, builders, developers, contractors, code organizations, property owners and renters. As part of our commitment to making natural disaster loss reduction a cooperative success story, IIPLR is developing Memorandums of Understanding with the Department of Energy, Department of Agriculture, the United States Geological Survey, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and others.

When will we know that this "blueprint" has been achieved? When people ask if their homes and businesses are as safe as possible from natural catastrophes and press for action to make that a reality. Our vision is nothing less than ensuring that the planning and construction of the nation's homes, businesses and public buildings will incorporate loss reduction initiatives that enable people and commerce to live and prosper in an atmosphere of personal safety and financial security.

Harvey G. Ryland was named President of the Insurance Institute for Property Loss Reduction in October 1996; formerly he served as the Deputy Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

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