Catastrophes set to drive 2020 reinsurance rates higher

FILE PHOTO: An "Emergency shelter" sign points to the Pedro Menendez High School ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Dorian in St. Augustine, Florida, U.S., September 2, 2019. REUTERS/Marco Bello - RC1823A64B90/File Photo

By Carolyn Cohn and Lena Masri

LONDON (Reuters) – Big insurance losses from hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters over the past two years are set to push reinsurance renewal rates higher in January, ratings agencies said.

After falling for several years due to competition and fewer natural disasters, renewal rates have started to climb in the past couple of years and for 2020 are set to rise on average by as much as 5%.

However, as Hurricane Dorian ravages the Bahamas and bears down on the United States, Fitch, Moody’s and S&P Global said some rates could jump by much more than that.

S&P said rates would likely rise by around 5%, Moody’s expected rises of 0-5%, while Fitch predicted 1-2%, in briefings ahead of the reinsurance industry’s annual conference in Monte Carlo which begins on Saturday.

Reinsurers such as Swiss Re, Munich Re, and the Lloyd’s of London market help insurers share the risks of disasters in return for part of the premium.

“It’s not a hard market but it’s a hardening market, there’s more positive momentum,” Ali Karakuyu, lead analyst at S&P Global, told a media briefing.

Fellow analyst David Masters said the industry was likely to see “mid-single-digit price increases” as a result.

Insurers are increasingly concerned about the impact of bad weather linked to climate change, with an increase in wildfires in California among the most costly in recent years, something S&P said could see rates there jump 30-70%.

“This market remains in disarray, which will fuel further rate increases,” a slide from the S&P presentation said.

Analysts at UBS estimated that the reinsurance industry is in an excess capital position of around $30 billion, but that an estimated $70 billion of natural catastrophe losses in 2019 could erode this excess capital.

Moody’s analysts said lines of business that have been performing badly over the last few years, for example due to losses related to hurricanes in the United States, would see price rises in the mid-teens.

Fitch Senior Director Graham Coutts said he expected average rates to rise 1-2%, similar to the increases seen in January 2019, although further rises could be seen depending on the scale of losses from Dorian and other hurricanes.

(Editing by Simon Jessop/Alexander Smith/Susan Fenton)

Preparing for disasters. Yes, it can happen to you.

Hurricane Michael survivor Yvette Beasley stands in her front yard during a wellbeing check by a 50 Star Search and Rescue team in Fountain, Florida, U.S., October 17, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

By Kami Klein

The statistics on a recent emergency preparation survey commissioned by the National Ad Council stated that 60 percent of Americans believe that preparation for natural or man-made disasters is of great importance to them, yet only an astounding 17 percent claim to be completely prepared for an emergency situation.  

Regardless of how many massive catastrophes people have seen on the news or heard of from friends or relatives, despite the ad campaigns on preparedness by communities and state governments, the common sense notion of preparing for an emergency gets pushed aside. This can and does have great consequences for whole communities.  

In 2016 the US Navy, Coast Guard, and Washington state’s National Guard created a full-scale, nine-day drill to test how well they could respond to a massive earthquake in the Cascadia Subduction Zone. That area covers Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland through northern California.

The 83-page report comes to many deeply concerning conclusions. The authors admit the systems are not ready, infrastructure would collapse, and they’d have a full-blown humanitarian crisis in ten days.

In the summations it was written:

“Through the two-year ramp-up and the culminating functional and full-scale exercises, the following overall conclusions can be drawn:  There is an urgent need for residents to prepare.  Despite the ongoing public education efforts and community preparedness programs, our families, communities, schools, hospitals, and businesses are not prepared for the catastrophic disaster that a worst-case earthquake would cause.”

According to the World Health Organization, every year natural disasters kill around 90,000 people and affect close to 160 million people worldwide. Natural disasters include earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, landslides, hurricanes, floods, wildfires, heat waves and droughts.

Emergency management professionals say people do understand that they should prepare for disasters but when it comes to something in life that creates fear and when you have never experienced a disaster situation personally, the human mind will rationalize and think “Those bad things won’t happen to me.” There are others who will also put the thoughts out of their minds and believe that rescue groups will bring what they need to their family in the event that they are in an emergency situation.  The reality of mass disasters proves over and over again that there is never enough help and many times it can be impossible to get to those that are affected because of great damage to roads and infrastructure.

Recently the massive flooding in our country’s breadbasket, caused by incredible storms and mountain snowmelt created islands of muddied silt instead of acres of farmland.  It has been weeks since this event and yet many communities have been without electricity and their water systems because crews are still having trouble getting to them. Worse yet, there have been round after round of intense storms, tornadoes and heavy rains contributing to the flooding of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers which is impeding the recovery efforts.

Facts are best for combating fear. The weather is an unpredictable force. In the United States alone, we average, 8 hurricanes a year, 2 that are major.  Last year we experienced a whopping 66,535 earthquakes that average at a  2.5 and above. Every season, the U.S. will be pounded by at least 1,154 tornados. In 2018 alone there were 58,083 wildfires. The likelihood that at some time you and your family could be involved in a disaster situation is higher than any of us want to believe.

The responsibility of preparing belongs to every family. There are basics to have on hand that not only will help you survive the worst but give you security when those panicked moments arrive with little time to respond.  Food and water are top on the list along with flashlights, and a source to cook meals. While some emergency personnel recommends only a 72 hour supply, that number is quickly changing due to the increased knowledge found in experiencing these catastrophes to having “at the very least” a two week supply on hand.  

A very good resource for what you need for your emergency kits and supplies can be found at Ready.gov.  Professional emergency management teams encourage you to look at the posted guidelines in the same way as you do with your insurance policies.  Become “matter of fact” about the possibilities and simply begin. By taking one step at a time there will be no reason to feel overwhelmed.

If you need inspiration, please read the testimony “It can happen to you” by Evonne Richard. whose family survived the deadly storm April 27th, 2011 in Apison, Tennessee. This town had been home to her for over 30 years with never a tornado or disaster.  The community was wiped out, many dead and the aftermath quite chaotic. But only weeks before the storm, Evonne observed a billboard regarding “How to Prepare” and felt compelled to act on it.  Her story will inspire you to do the same.

We cannot count on government offices nor rescue groups to help us in times of disaster. Most will be overwhelmed.  These unexpected events will continue to come. Together we must learn to count on ourselves to have on hand what we need for survival.  It isn’t a whim, nor is it something to put off. With the statistics of the possibilities that can and will happen to most of us in a lifetime, it makes common sense!!   

Morningside believes strongly in the practice of preparing.  We want you to be ready for anything to help your family and your community. In order to stay on the air and support this ministry, Morningside does have special offers of survival items including food, generators, water filtration, and other great items. These items are well researched and in most cases at a reduced price from items you can find online.  Don’t forget that you can also check out PTLshop.com YOUR faith-based shopping network!

Start Preparing!  It is one of the few things in life you will never regret.  

 

YOUR MONEY: Renovating after a natural disaster? Planning is key

FILE PHOTO: Damage caused by Hurricane Michael is seen in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 16, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester/File Photo

By Beth Pinsker

NEW YORK (Reuters) – For the Parkers of Houston, Texas, there will be no summer vacation this year because they are still paying off the dent in their finances left by 2017’s Hurricane Harvey.

The couple joins a growing list of people forced to renovate or completely rebuild their homes after a natural disaster, as severe weather events wreak damage throughout the country and spending in their wake drags out over multiple years.

Fixing up homes after a natural disaster barely used to register in home renovation data. A new survey released June 5 by the home site Houzz.com shows that 6% of home renovators in 2018 were addressing damage from a natural disaster, which jumps to 12% for such renovations over the past five years.

Regionally, those numbers are continuing to climb, said Nino Sitchinava, Houzz principal economist, particularly for California, Texas and Florida.

The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University has also been looking into the impact of natural disasters on the home renovation market.

“We’ve been studying home improvement for 25 years and losses from national disasters haven’t been on the radar. Suddenly, we’re seeing this pop up as a significant share,” said Kermit Baker, director of the remodeling future program at the Harvard center.

In 2016-2017, the most recent year reported by the center, spending on disasters repairs exceeded $27 billion in the United States, against $14 billion in 1996-1997.

Preparing for a disaster is drastically different than paying for a planned kitchen makeover.

“You have to prepare, prepare, prepare. Whatever that means, to you – do it,” warned William Begal, an independent consultant based in the Washington, D.C. area who ran a renovation company for 18 years.

PAYING THE PRICE

The Parkers now know all of this first hand. When their house in the Linkwood neighborhood flooded, there were some things they needed to do right away, yet they are still spending two years later.

The presence of water means you have to move fast. They had to rip out carpet and drywall themselves, and then hire a crew out-of-pocket before any insurance adjustor came around.

They also could not live in their house while it was being fixed, so they forked out $3,000 a month for a rental.

Once the insurance kicked in, they received a small sum from an escrow account a few weeks after the flood, and then had to wait for the project to be 50% complete before they got more. They did not get the final payment until the project was done.

“It was key we had stashed away an emergency fund so we were not spiraling downward,” said Angie Parker, 38, who is a personal fitness trainer in the Houston area.

Parker said she spent many hours on the phone with the insurance company, crying sometimes, being aggressive when she had to be.

Luckily, the family had flood insurance, which was a requirement for their mortgage in a flood-prone neighborhood.

Most people, however, do not have flood insurance, and this further delays rebuilding efforts.

Yet, there were still issues. An inadvertently checked box on a form meant the contents of their house were not covered. So they were out more than $100,000 for furniture, clothing and housewares, and lost all their appeals to have those covered.  

Jerry Linebaugh, an investment advisor representative who owns JLine Financial near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, had a similar experience when his office flooded after a rain event in 2018 that was not even a named storm – just heavy rain over three days.

“You have to have a cash reserve, you have to have your insurance in line, you have to do disaster drills,” said Linebaugh, who had planned for the worst ever since Hurricane Katrina hit nearby.

Linebaugh had a system set up to transfer his office lines to cell phones and keep his operations going from hotel rooms and his employees’ homes.

He had six months of operating expenses to float his business. And he needed all it, because he did not have flood insurance.

It was four months before Linebaugh won an appeal with his business insurance policy to cover losses based on an inland marine clause, which worked for him because the damage started with water coming in through a bathroom drain.

“Probably thousands of people didn’t get that claim check because they didn’t know about that,” said Linebaugh.

(Editing by Lauren Young and Bernadette Baum)

U.S. disaster-response force stretched thin as hurricane season starts

A traffic sign warns of hurricane season in Stowell, Texas, U.S., June 12, 2018. Picture taken June 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As Hurricane Irma bore down on Florida last September, the top U.S. disaster-response official ordered all hands on deck.

With 4,500 Federal Emergency Management Agency staffers already helping survivors of Hurricane Harvey in Texas, FEMA chief Brock Long told managers in an internal memo to ready every member of the agency’s on-call reservist workforce for deployment.

In the following months, thousands of FEMA reservists, who account for about half of the agency’s disaster-response personnel, would descend on Florida, Puerto Rico, California and elsewhere to help recovery efforts after an unprecedented string of natural disasters.

But not all would respond. About 500 reservists, or one of every twelve workers, ignored FEMA’s deployment request, current and former officials told Reuters.

“We didn’t even hear from them,” Patrick Hernandez, who oversees FEMA’s disaster workforce, said in an interview. “We need to get people in here who understand the system and adhere to the protocols.”

With the 2018 hurricane season already underway, FEMA is scrambling to hire more people who are willing to depart at a moment’s notice for assignments that can last months at a stretch.

Internal documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show the agency’s disaster-response force is understaffed by 26 percent. And as last year revealed, many of those who sign up don’t always respond when needed.

That comes at a cost. At times, staffing shortages force FEMA to shuffle personnel from one disaster to the next and in some cases rely on workers who do not know how to do the job effectively, according to interviews with 15 current and former FEMA workers.

Some local officials say the agency’s central mission – getting federal aid where it is needed – is undercut by the constant turnover.

“They had no knowledge of the system. They had no knowledge about how to do anything but fill out forms,” said Junior Shelton, mayor of Central, Louisiana, which experienced catastrophic flooding in 2016. “We’re still sitting around waiting for that money to get here.”

Hernandez said staffing issues have not affected FEMA’s ability to get the job done. “I would not agree with that statement wholeheartedly,” he said.

 

FILE PHOTO: Representatives from FEMA speak with a resident of the Staten Island borough neighborhood of New Dorp Beach about registering with the agency for financial assistance to help recover from the storm surge of Hurricane Sandy in New York, NY, U.S., November 15, 2012. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Representatives from FEMA speak with a resident of the Staten Island borough neighborhood of New Dorp Beach about registering with the agency for financial assistance to help recover from the storm surge of Hurricane Sandy in New York, NY, U.S., November 15, 2012. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

‘A VERY LOW NUMBER’

The extraordinary string of domestic disasters in 2017 continues to weigh on the U.S. agency. With thousands of workers still out in the field, official figures show that 33 percent of FEMA’s disaster-response workforce is available for deployment, down from 56 percent at this time last year.

Some specialties are stretched especially thin: Only 13 percent of the workers who direct federal aid to pay for rebuilding costs after a disaster hits are currently available.

“That’s a very low number, and that would be very scary going into more disasters,” said Elizabeth Zimmerman, a former senior FEMA official.

Unlike military reservists, those who work for FEMA don’t have a guarantee that their regular jobs will be available when they return home. As a result, most are retirees who don’t need steady work or recent college graduates who don’t yet have a full-time job, current and former managers say.

Reservists are allowed to turn down up to three assignments each year, meaning FEMA cannot count on a full reserve force during peak periods. According to internal figures, FEMA’s reservist corps has grown by roughly 1,000 workers over the past year. Still, it remains 3,700 workers short of the 10,949 reservists it has determined it needs to be able to respond to several disasters at once.

FILE PHOTO: Members of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Urban Search and Rescue team inspect homes and offer assistance, at Lee Hill Drive in Boulder, Colorado, U.S., September 16, 2013. REUTERS/Mark Leffingwell/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Members of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Urban Search and Rescue team inspect homes and offer assistance, at Lee Hill Drive in Boulder, Colorado, U.S., September 16, 2013. REUTERS/Mark Leffingwell/File Photoe reservists say they are not in a position to accept months-long assignments far from their homes.

“I could get a phone call tomorrow telling me to go to Puerto Rico, but the truth is I’m not going to go,” said Alessandra Jerolleman, who said family obligations prevent her from leaving Louisiana.

FEMA officials point out they can pull in other types of workers when needed. Some 22,000 federal employees from agencies like the Defense Department participated in disaster-relief work with FEMA in 2017, for example.

“We rely on our reservists and we love them,” said FEMA’s Hernandez. “But FEMA’s made up of a lot of different elements.”

SECOND-CLASS CITIZENS

FEMA also hires residents of disaster zones to help out, a practice that is widely praised for boosting employment and harnessing local knowledge. But some say it can hinder FEMA’s effectiveness.

Carlos Mercader, Puerto Rico’s top lobbyist in Washington, said he received numerous complaints of poorly trained FEMA workers who assess damaged houses in a seemingly arbitrary manner. While one might be declared a total loss, another that appeared to suffer similar damage might be denied reconstruction assistance, he said.

Local hires accounted for more than half of the 2,878 FEMA employees in Puerto Rico in May, according to agency figures obtained by Reuters. Only 100 are permanent FEMA employees.

“They probably should be sending us more people with as much experience as possible,” Mercader said.

FEMA officials say Congress could help with recruiting and retaining reservists by guaranteeing they can keep their regular jobs while on assignment, as is the case with military reservists. Officials have also asked Congress to change hiring laws to give reservists preferential status when they apply for a full-time FEMA job.

Congress has yet to act on those requests.

But FEMA’s own actions may also drive away some who are willing to serve, reservists say.

Paul Seldes, 59, said he tried unsuccessfully since 2011 to find an assignment that matched his background in field operations.

Instead, the agency repeatedly asked him to report to a telephone call center to screen financial-aid requests from disaster survivors. By last fall, he no longer bothered to respond to such deployment requests, he said.

“I have this capability, I have this knowledge, I have this training – why don’t you want to listen to me?” he said.

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Paul Thomasch)

Uncovered losses hurt U.S. small business in wake of 2017 storms: Fed

FILE PHOTO: The corner stone of the New York Federal Reserve Bank is seen surrounded by financial institutions in New York City, New York, U.S., March 25, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

By Reade Levinson

(Reuters) – Small businesses in the United States struggled with uninsured damages and lost revenue following a record-breaking year of hurricanes and wildfires, according to a Federal Reserve survey published on Tuesday.

The report by the Dallas, New York, Richmond, and San Francisco Fed banks examined 1,800 businesses with fewer than 500 employees in zip codes with disasters designated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It found, 40 percent of small firms in these areas had natural-disaster related losses, and 35 percent lost more than $25,000 in revenues.

The report paints a worrisome picture for local economies after a record-breaking year of weather and climate-related disasters that cost the United States an estimated $306 billion in 2017, the third-warmest year on record, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

To see the report,  click here  .

“Small businesses are primary drivers of job growth and their ability to rebound from disasters is critical to regional economic recovery,” said Claire Kramer Mills, assistant vice president at the New York Fed.

Small businesses employ half of private-sector workers and are the primary creators of new jobs in the United States, according to a 2015 U.S. Census Bureau study.

The survey found last year’s storms hit minority communities particularly hard. Some 54 percent of Hispanic-owned firms in affected areas reported natural disaster-related losses, compared to 40 percent of White-owned firms and 35 percent of Black or African American-owned firms.

The storms hit lodging and retail businesses hardest. Some 52 percent of leisure and hospitality firms and 47 percent of retail firms in affected areas reported natural disaster-related losses, the highest shares of all industries.

Small and young businesses are especially vulnerable to extreme weather and other natural disasters compared to their larger counterparts. Financing options are limited: federal relief funds can take months to reach communities and few small business are insured against such storms.

The report found firms’ insurance holdings did not match the sources of their losses, which stemmed more from disrupted business than from damaged assets. Sixty-five percent of disaster-affected firms cited loss of power or utilities as the source of their losses. However, only 17 percent of affected firms had business disruption insurance at the time of the disaster.

Federal Reserve Bank officials who worked on the report said local governments can help bridge this insurance gap by helping business understand their vulnerabilities and purchase the relevant coverage beforehand.

(Reporting by Reade Levinson in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Nick Zieminski)

U.S. Energy Department forming cyber protection unit for power grids

Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's pick to lead the Department of Energy, meets with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. January 4, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) said on Wednesday it is establishing an office to protect the nation’s power grid and other infrastructure against cyber attacks and natural disasters.

President Donald Trump’s budget proposal unveiled this week included $96 million in funding for the Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry said the DOE “plays a vital role in protecting our nation’s energy infrastructure from cyber threats, physical attack and natural disaster, and as secretary, I have no higher priority.”

Last July, the DOE helped U.S. firms defend against a hacking campaign that targeted power companies including at least one nuclear plant. The agency said that the attacks did not have an impact on electricity generation or the grid, and that any impact appeared to be limited to administrative and business networks.

The previous month, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation had issued an alert to industrial companies, warning that for months hackers had targeted nuclear reactors and other power industry infrastructure, using tainted emails to harvest credentials and gain access to networks.

In some cases hackers succeeded in compromising the networks of their targets, but the report did not identify specific victims.

Nuclear power experts, such as Dave Lochbaum at the Union of Concerned Scientists nonprofit group, have said reactors have a certain amount of immunity from cyber attacks because their operation systems are separate from digital business networks. But over time it would not be impossible for hackers to potentially do harm, he said.

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

Insurers to pay out record $135 billion for 2017 after hurricanes

The company logo of German reinsurer Munich Re is seen before the company's annual news conference in Munich, Germany, March 16, 2016.

By Tom Sims and Alexander Hübner

FRANKFURT/MUNICH (Reuters) – Insurers will have to pay claims of around $135 billion for 2017, the most ever, following a spate of hurricanes, earthquakes and fires in North America, according to a report published on Thursday.

German reinsurer Munich Re , in its annual natural catastrophe review, also said last year’s total losses, including those not insured, were $330 billion, the second-worst in history after 2011 when an earthquake and tsunami wreaked havoc in Japan.

Although individual events could not be linked directly to climate change, global warming is playing a role, Munich Re said. It expected more frequent extreme events in future.

“We have a new normal,” said Ernst Rauch, head of Munich Re’s Corporate Climate Center, which monitors climate change risks.

“2017 was not an outlier,” he said, noting insured losses have surpassed $100 billion multiple times since 2005. “We must have on our radar the trend of new magnitudes.”

Last year’s hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in the United States and Caribbean, wildfires in California and earthquakes in Mexico destroyed homes, infrastructure and numerous lives.

The disasters also rocked global insurers. Munich Re and Hannover Re both issued profit warnings.

That dealt a blow to a sector already struggling with thin margins, stiff competition and falling prices.

Munich Re’s tally for the industry comes on the back of other estimates that underscored the severity of 2017.

In December, Swiss Re estimated global insured losses from catastrophes would hit $136 billion in 2017, the third-highest on record for the sector, with the United States hardest hit. That figure is not directly comparable to Munich Re’s estimates as it includes man-made disasters.

Reinsurers, which are in the business of insuring insurance, are experts in managing risk and rarely get caught off guard. Analysts have said reinsurers may need to take a fresh look at their risk models as the planet warms and storms become more intense.

A big question for the industry has been whether the run of catastrophes would allow them to achieve higher prices for their coverage, which have been in decline for years.

Early indications suggest modest increases. Global property reinsurance prices rose less than expected in the key Jan. 1 renewal season, with strong competition limiting increases to single digit percentages, brokers said this week.

A turnaround in prices would be the first major reversal since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

(Editing by Maria Sheahan and Mark Potter)

Insurance could cut $29 billion natural disaster bill for poor nations

natural disaster

LONDON (Reuters) – New types of insurance could cut the costs of natural disasters for poorer countries and reduce the amount of humanitarian aid needed, according to a report commissioned by Britain’s international development ministry.

The cost of natural disasters to some of the world’s poorest countries has averaged a total of $29.1 billion a year in the past 15 years, catastrophe modeling firm RMS said.

While aid has covered 8 percent of this, insurance has only paid for 3 percent of the average costs of earthquakes, drought or floods in 77 low and low-middle income countries, or $900 million, but could cover up to $6.8 billion if more insurance structures were used, RMS said in the report prepared for Britain’s Department for International Development.

Britain said at last weekend’s G20 meeting it would set up the London Centre for Global Disaster Protection to help developing countries use insurance to cut disaster costs.

“There is clear potential for insurance to both reduce the shortfall in funding for natural disaster losses in low and low-middle income countries, and to relieve pressure on humanitarian aid budgets,” RMS said.

This includes using so-called “parametric” structures, where insurance payments are triggered by a predetermined factor, such as an increase in water height, at a specified location.

Such models are used in existing insurance facilities such as African Risk Capacity and make payments more effective.

On a disaster loss of $30 billion, every dollar paid out through parametric insurance has the same impact as $3.50 of slower-moving aid payments, RMS said.

“It’s not just about speed, it’s about certainty,” said Daniel Stander, global head of the firm’s public sector group, adding that parametric insurance enables countries to know in advance how much money they will receive in a disaster.

(Reporting by Carolyn Cohn; Editing by Alexander Smith)

Facebook creates ‘Community Help’ feature for disaster assistance

Facebook logo

By David Ingram

(Reuters) – Facebook plans to add a feature on Wednesday to make it easier for people affected by disasters to find each other locally to provide and receive help.

The world’s largest social network said its “Community Help” will activate after natural disasters and major accidents as a part of “Safety Check,” a related feature that allows Facebook users to assure others that they are safe.

The company’s designers envisioned a virtual classified advertising section where people near each other can offer shelter after a forest fire, seek food in the wake of an earthquake and meet other immediate needs in an organized way.

“It’s going to help easily match people who are looking to help with those who need help within the community,” Preethi Chetan, a Facebook product designer, told reporters in a briefing.

Facebook, with 1.9 billion monthly users as of December, rolled out Safety Check in 2014. The feature has sometimes stumbled.

Last year, after a suicide bombing in Pakistan, users as far away as New York received notifications asking if they were safe. Others said they were alarmed by vague text messages to mobile phones that asked, “Are you affected by the explosion?”

Safety Check was used for the first time in the United States in June after a gunman massacred 49 people at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

In designing Community Help, Facebook officials said they consulted with emergency relief organizations such as the Red Cross.

Community Help will at first be used for natural disasters and incidents such as building fires, not for mass shootings or bombings, the company said. Initially it will be available only in the United States, Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and Saudi Arabia, it said.

Facebook said it plans to expand to other countries and other types of incidents after testing.

The new feature comes with a few safety guidelines, such as a warning to users that if they meet strangers to arrange disaster help, they should do so in a public place, officials said.

(Reporting by David Ingram in New York; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Are U.S. public schools prepared for an emergency?

School bus

By Lisa Rapaport

(Reuters Health) – More than a fifth U.S. school districts lack comprehensive plans to respond to natural disasters, epidemic diseases or other emergencies, a new report finds.

While almost 80 percent of school districts nationwide have plans to help students and staff with special needs during an emergency situation, only about 68 percent have protocols to reunite children with their families after disaster strikes, according to the report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Roughly 69 percent of school districts have procedures set up to cope with pandemic influenza or other infectious disease outbreaks and to offer mental health support to students, faculty and staff after a crisis, the report also found.

“Schools have direct contact with approximately 95 percent of America’s children between 5 and 17 years of age, for about six hours a day, and are active partners in infectious disease prevention and control and in the unfolding of any emergency event such as floods or hurricanes,” said lead report author Brenda Silverman of the CDC.

“Because children are separated from their caregivers while attending school, school preparedness plans need to reflect children’s unique needs with an emphasis on family reunification,” Silverman added by email.

To assess emergency preparedness, CDC researchers examined 2012 survey data on health policies and practices at about 700 school districts nationwide.

Respondents were asked whether the school district required schools to have a comprehensive plan in place to address four specific topics: family reunification, infectious disease outbreaks, provisions for people with special needs and mental health care after a crisis.

On all fronts, urban school districts were more likely to require plans than their rural counterparts.

Overall, districts in the Midwest were less likely to require schools to include specific topics in their crisis preparedness plans than districts in the Northeast and South.

Districts were less likely to coordinate emergency plans with families than with local law enforcement and emergency service providers, the report found.

About 43 percent of districts nationwide collaborated with families to develop preparedness, response and recovery plans.

Almost 95 percent of districts partnered with law enforcement, however, and 92 percent coordinated with fire officials.

While about 83 percent of districts coordinated with local emergency medical service providers, just 41 percent collaborated with a local hospital and 66 percent partnered with the local health department.

One limitation of the report is that the survey included “yes or no” responses that didn’t leave room for districts to explain the relevance of certain topics in their preparedness plans or identify areas for improvement, the authors note.

In addition, because the survey is only done every six years, it’s possible that the data from 2012 doesn’t reflect current practices or policies.

Still, the findings suggest that at least some school children may be vulnerable in an emergency, said Dr. Laura Faherty, a pediatrics researcher at RAND Corporation in Boston who wasn’t involved in the report.

“Schools are where kids spend the majority of their day, but they don’t exist in isolation,” Faherty said by email. “Coordination among health departments, healthcare settings, law enforcement, first responders, mental health and social services agencies, as well as families, is critical to making sure children are as safe as possible.”

The results of poor planning can be dire, said Dr. Daniel B. Fagbuyi, a researcher at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., who wasn’t involved in the report.

“When schools aren’t fully prepared for a disaster life altering consequences may occur including increased morbidity and mortality,” Fagbuyi said by email. “Conversely, disaster preparedness activities at the school and in collaboration with community and parents fosters confidence, community resilience and can save lives.”

SOURCE: http://bit.ly/2cmM426 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, online September 16, 2016.