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How Hurricane Katrina prompted a new era of disaster risk management

August 27, 2015

Hurricane Katrina was not only the costliest disaster in U.S. history; it was also a wake-up call for the disaster risk community that disasters have no borders. They can happen in developing countries like Bangladesh or Malawi, as well as in developed countries like Germany and the U.S.

Katrina flood

The catastrophe prompted an urgent response and recovery mechanism with images spreading around the world of areas in New Orleans completely washed away by the subsequent flooding and of the thousands and thousands of people seeking shelter in the Louisiana Superdome. But more importantly, it prompted us to rethink the way that we view disaster risk management.

Since Hurricane Katrina, Zurich has reshaped the way we work with our customers to help them protect themselves from flood risk in a number of different ways including CAT modeling, claims handling, communications processes, risk engineering practices and much more.

It has also changed the way we think about the impact of floods on our communities. While floods are natural, there is nothing natural about their disastrous consequences. Today, floods affect more people globally than any other type of natural hazard. They are in many cases man-made through population growth, rapid urbanization and economic development in hazard-prone areas. People are drawn to live on flood plains partly because of economic opportunity, and it is increasingly recognized that communities cannot totally avoid risks, thus living with risks is an imperative.

KatrinaHowever, preparedness and mitigation efforts are not enough. If we want communities to continue to thrive in the face of risk, we need to focus our work on measures that improve resilience. This includes exploring alternative livelihoods to secure income during floods or improving waste management to ensure rivers do not get clogged by litter.

Through a dedicated Flood Resilience Program launched in 2013, Zurich is taking a pioneering approach to improve flood resilience from the bottom-up in some of the most vulnerable communities in the world. By contributing our risk management skills and expertise, we are helping these communities implement the right risk reduction measures that will improve their resilience level. We are also gathering unique knowledge that we can reinvest into our business to help protect our customers from flood risk.

Zurich is working with some of the most prominent community practitioners and researchers in this area such as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), Practical Action, the St. Bernard Project, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) to help us become the go-to insurer when it comes to flood risks and resilience expertise.

We know that extreme events such as Hurricane Katrina will happen again. We just don’t know when and where. If we can play a role in helping the world to continue to thrive in the face of flood risks, then we are truly creating value for all of our stakeholders.


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