Wind v. Water Damage: Forensic Meteorology's Role in Post-Sandy Claims

Weather Data and Coverage Determinations

(Editor's Note: This article has been contributed by Howard Altschule, a forensic meteorologist and president of Forensic Weather Consultants, LLC.)

Post-Tropical Cyclone Sandy (formerly known as Hurricane Sandy) made landfall over Atlantic City, N.J. at 8:00 p.m. EDT on October 29, 2012 with sustained winds of 80 miles per hour. The effects of the storm were felt far and wide, as the strong winds and storm surge occurred far from where the storm made landfall. Record-breaking storm surge, hurricane-force winds, widespread wind damage and power outages have resulted. Unfortunately, the storm also caused numerous injuries and fatalities. 

With such an intense storm occurring in some of the biggest cities in the world, an enormous number of insurance claims are already being submitted to various insurance companies. As is often the case with storms of this magnitude, lawsuits involving weather-related issues may soon follow. As a forensic meteorologist who has worked on more than 1,800 cases nationwide, including many from Hurricane Katrina, Ike, Ivan, Irene and Wilma, I know how important accurate weather information can be in resolving insurance claims and litigations fairly. 

Typical Duties and Expertise

It is important for claims adjusters to use the services of a meteorologist who has the credentials and background to gather the official weather records; know what’s available; perform a fair and unbiased analysis; and render opinions and findings based on sound, scientific principles. The data used should be from official sources that forensic meteorologists rely upon during the normal course of business. The forensic meteorologist selected by claims should be able to review other expert reports and incident photographs, prepare affidavits, do site visits, and have experience in depositions and live courtroom testimony. 

The following are some common types of cases following the passage of a hurricane or windstorm for which insurers may solicit the expertise of a forensic meteorologist. We'll also examine the data these scientists use to determine damages accurately in order for the ensuing P&C claims to be handled properly.

Wind Vs. Water 

Using the latest technology and atmospheric computer models, the Forensic Hurricane Model is able to determine what the sustained wind speeds and wind gusts were every 15 minutes during the course of a storm at a specific loss address. 

Thousands of data reports from a variety of sources are assimilated and physics-based processes are run to determine what the conditions were during the course of the storm. This combined with storm surge/tide data helps forensic experts determine what the wind and surge conditions likely were at a specific address. The data can be used in conjunction with other official weather data, bulletins and reports to determine if the storm was a named storm at the time of landfall and if named-storm deductibles were triggered. The data can be presented in detailed tables and graphs, and these reports can then be used to make coverage decisions necessary for claims processing and resolving any litigation that could arise.

See related: The Debate About Hurricane Deductibles Begins

From Wind: Downed Trees, Roof and Structural Damage 

Windstorms, hurricanes and Nor’Easters all have the potential to cause different kinds of damage over short distances due to many localized effects. Some areas may see strong winds capable of causing damage, and other areas may experience much less wind. The importance of accurate weather information (including Doppler radar imagery) is very important because it can help determine if the winds were capable of causing the type of damage that the claims adjuster observed or if the damage appeared “old” and may have been there previously. 

During “Sandy,” numerous reports were received of trees falling onto houses and cars. Unfortunately, many fatalities were reported from falling trees as well. Using the official weather data such as surface observations, mesonet data, various Doppler radar products and storm reports, wind speeds in the vicinity of the incident location can be determined. This data can be used by engineers or tree experts to help determine if the winds were capable of causing the damage to a tree or not. In some cases, the trees were rotted and it didn’t take much wind to knock them down. In other cases, the wind speeds were of sufficient speed to cause damage to normally healthy trees. We can also determine if tornado activity was indicated near the loss location, a common occurrence in the right-front quadrant of some well-organized tropical systems. Weather data of this type has also been used in cases where windows of hotels or condos were broken when they were rated to withstand winds well above what was observed.   

Rainfall Flooding: Roof Leaks, Flooded Basements, Damaged Vehicles

Tropical systems often have a lot of rain associated with them due their tropical nature, and Nor’Easters can also produce very heavy rain and flooding. When flood-damage or personal-injury cases involving rainfall arise, numerous types of weather data can be used to get an accurate interpretation of how much rain fell. Using surface observations, cooperative observer data, mesonet data, storm reports and Doppler radar rainfall-accumulation products zoomed in over the incident location, specific rainfall amounts can be determined where the loss occurred. In addition, during flood situations the rainfall amounts that are determined can also be compared to 50- or 100-year storms through climate research.

With the various types of incidents and accidents that can and do occur with tropical systems and Nor’Easters, it’s very important to have accurate, thorough and detailed weather information and records. Even more important is knowing what records are available and how to interpret them accurately. When it comes to hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in damages or claims, it is always better to rely on a seasoned forensic meteorologist who has the background, education and experience to tell you, confidently, what the weather conditions were based on the supporting data. I suspect the use of forensic meteorologists in post-Sandy claims and litigation will be on the rise.     

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