|Help! Severe Weather Damaged My Home:|
How Insurance Companies Use Forensic Meteorology
To Validate an Insurance Claim
It's a typical mid-summer day in Hutchinson, Kansas. As you leave for work in the morning, the local
news reports that there is a slight risk for severe weather in your area. Around 3:30 PM, a severe
thunderstorm with one inch hail and 60 MPH wind gusts moves across Hutchinson causing moderate
structural damage to homes in the area.
You race home from your job in Sterling, Kansas, which is about 18 miles north-northwest of
Hutchinson and end up driving through the same system that blew through your community 15
minutes earlier. You will learn later that the squall line stretched from the southeast
to the northwest, from just west of Wichita to Sterling.
When you survey the damage at home, you notice that your siding appears to have been pitted by wind
driven hail. Your first thought is to take pictures and contact your insurance company.
Before you get a chance to call the claims center of ABC Insurance, you call your brother-in-law
in Wichita, Kansas, 41 miles to the south-southeast to see if he had any hail damage to his home. He
says that they had some rain but no severe weather. You hang up the phone and file a claim with ABC
Insurance to have your home's siding replaced.
Meanwhile, your brother-in-law remembers that he was paid on an insurance claim for his home's siding
that was damaged in a hail storm three years ago from the XYZ Insurance Company. He never had the
siding repaired and used the money for a weekend trip to Las Vegas. Now that he is with ABC Insurance,
he decides to also file a claim saying that his siding was damaged by hail in today's storm.
"How will they know that hail didn't damage my home today? The severe weather was near here… I see
another trip to Vegas in my future!"
Later in the week, a Loss Manager at ABC Insurance's corporate office in San Diego, California has
two claim files on his desk. Both are for siding damaged by hail in Kansas. One is in the city
of Hutchinson and the other is in Wichita. He reviews the pictures of the damage and reads the
local adjuster's notes on the damage assessment. The local adjuster mentions in his report
that the damage at the home in Wichita is puzzling. He lives a few blocks away from the
claimant and no hail fell at his home, only some rainfall.
The Loss Manager must now determine if hail fell on that day in Kansas, and if so, was it near both
of his insured? ABC Insurance belongs to an insurance trade association that archives daily severe
weather reports from the Storm Prediction Center. He goes to their website, enters the event
date and Hutchinson, Kansas into the search box and pulls up a report of one inch hail, driven
by 60 MPH wind gusts. Based on the information from the Storm Prediction Center and the report
from the local adjuster, your claim is paid and you use the money to replace your siding.
The Loss Manager now turns his attention to the hail loss in Wichita. The notes from the local
Claims Adjuster concern him. He goes back to the historical catastrophe database and enters
the date of loss and Wichita, Kansas into the search box. A report of 0.75 inch hail is listed
in Wichita. Since your brother-in-law's insurance policy has been in effect for less than
a month, a search is also conducted to see if any hail reports were received in the past
five years in the Wichita area. A large hail storm that devastated the area pops up from
three years ago. The Loss Manager makes a note of this.
The next step is to download the severe weather reports for the claim date and load it into a Geographic
Information System which will display the severe weather events and the location of his insured on
a map. This will allow him to see how close the hail report was to the insured.
The map displays and the Loss Manager is not surprised to see that the 0.75 inch hail report is ten
miles to the west of the insured's property. The Loss Manager decides to also download the NEXRAD
data for the day and load it into his GIS program. One of the features of the NEXRAD system is
that it estimates the hail size and wind speed of particular storm cells on its Storm Attributes
Table. Even though this is an estimate, he wants to determine if the radar detected any hail
near the insured on the date of loss.
The Loss Manager quickly determines that not even the NEXRAD data supports the insured's claim that
large hail fell and damaged his siding. The claim file is forwarded to the insurance company's
Special Investigations Unit and the assigned investigator finds out that your brother in law
filed a claim with the XYZ Insurance Company three years ago for the same hail damaged siding.
Based on this analysis, your brother in law's insurance claim is denied, his homeowner's
policy is cancelled and he is lucky that the ABC Insurance Company will not be prosecuting
him for insurance fraud.
Forensic Meteorology and the Insurance Industry
Traditional broadcast and private meteorologists forecast what will happen in the future. Forensic
meteorologists must determine if an event actually occurred and where.
With claims validation in the insurance industry, it is normally as simple as the previous example,
where severe storm reports and NEXRAD storm attributes are archived in a database and made searchable
for the insurance company's adjusters. Where forensic meteorologists really shine is when they are
called upon to reconstruct the atmospheric conditions at a given time and place. A great example
is with Hurricane Katrina and "wind versus water" exclusions in homeowner's policies. Most
homeowner's policies will not cover damage caused by rising water, but will cover damage for
wind loss and rain.
Forensic meteorologists were called to testify in some court cases to determine if the structural
damage was caused by Katrina's storm surge, which would be excluded on a typical homeowner's policy,
or by the hurricane force winds damaging roofs and windows of homes, with the interior of the structure
and contents of the home being damaged by the accompanying rain which fell through the openings in
the dwelling. This would be a covered peril.
Utilizing satellite and radar data, forensic meteorologists were able to determine the path and
intensity of the storm and when precipitation fell at a specific location. Anemometers at surface
observation stations (that were not damaged by the initial landfall of the storm), local storm
reports and NEXRAD Storm Attribute Table wind data were used to establish wind speeds at the
surface. Satellite and aerial photography, overlaid onto U.S. Geological Survey topographic
maps, were loaded into Geographic Information Software to determine the depth of standing
water around structures.
With all of this information compiled, the forensic meteorologist is able to determine when the
destructive wind and rain reached the property, in relation to the storm surge or floodwaters,
thereby validating or disproving the insured's claim of damage caused by wind versus water.
Insurance companies are relying more on the knowledge of forensic meteorologists, and it is not limited
to hurricanes and flooding. Lightning strike verification, high wind events (tornadoes, straight
line wind and microbursts) and winter precipitation (roof collapse due to heavy snowfall and
electrical disruption due to freezing rain coated power lines) are some of the more popular
occurrences where the expertise of a forensic meteorologist is utilized. Reconstructing the
weather can be almost as difficult as forecasting it.