Tuesday, January 24, 2017

What’s in a (Storm) Name?

Since 2012, The Weather Channel (“TWC”) has been naming winter storms according to its own internal procedures—or, as some would see it, internal whims. TWC’s criteria for naming winter storms was first implemented for the 2013-2014 winter season, and is based on “the population and area that is forecast to be impacted by winter weather based on thresholds set by the National Weather Service for winter weather warnings”; however, TWC’s three-person storm-naming committee may override these criteria when, for example, the event is particularly historic or unusual. According to TWC’s announcement for the 2016-2017 season, the names will be “used in alphabetical order to identify winter storms that meet naming criteria.” The exciting list of storm names, including Pluto, Quid, Reggie and Stella, has been contributed to “once again” by “the Bozeman, Montana High School Latin class.”
TWC’s practice is controversial. On one hand, as opined by the editors of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (which TWC linked to its 2016-2017 storm-names page), naming snowstorms is helpful for the efficient dissemination of information to those who might otherwise be unaware of a potential storm, particularly in the era of Twitter hashtags. Indeed, using names as a way to “avoid confusion and streamline communications” is a reason the National Hurricane Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) began naming tropical storms some years ago. On the other hand, TWC’s storm-naming practices have come under attack—or, at least, eye-rolling—from those both inside and outside of commercial meteorology. When TWC first decided to officially take on the yoke of naming winter storms, rivals took to the internet to opine that TWC’s practice was for commercial purposes.
Another problem with TWC’s unilateral practice of storm-naming is that, under its naming-rubric, just about any grade of storm could be a “named storm,” since its test links the storm to populations, and also takes advantage of the fact that the National Weather Service’s decision to issue a storm warning varies from region to region. As TWC itself explains, “a [National Weather Service] winter storm warning is issued for Atlanta when 2 inches of snow is expected in 24 hours, but it takes 9 inches to trigger a winter storm warning in Burlington, Vermont.”  Correct: storm warnings are issued by the NWS from local offices, based on “local criteria.”
The extreme looseness of TWC’s formula was evident in its most recently named Winter Storm Kori, which brought rain and snow to the west coast and mostly rain and snow to the northeast. Thus, snow isn’t even a criterion for a TWC winter storm—thanks to TWC’s flexible formula and, one would presume, global warming. Likewise, recent Winter Storm Helena travelled coast to coast, with snow resulting in some regions, sleet, rain and/or ice in others.
Certainly, the practice of naming tropical storms has had a long history. Currently, however, the practice follows strict parameters based on wind speeds. “Tropical storms” that are named by the National Hurricane Center are those that reach speeds of at least 17 m/s (past 33 m/s and they are classified as hurricanes). Most commentators, including those in the insurance industry, would say that the verifiable, measurable classification of these storms makes them valuable benchmarks. In other words, if the storm is named, it has reached a certain level of power.
Still, like it or not, the practice of naming various types of storm events—under varying rubrics and schemes—continues to expand, including expansion to government entities. In 2015, for example, the UK’s National Meteorological Service and the Irish Meteorological Service began naming storms, with the stated purpose of aiding communication to the public. The UK’s criteria are based on its National Severe Weather Warnings alerts service; storm systems may be named “on the basis of impacts from wind but also include the impacts of rain and snow.”
The expansion in storm naming is a phenomenon worth thinking about from an insurance perspective. Will the practice of naming storms eventually cause homeowners to stop paying attention to the weather, the result of “crying wolf syndrome” on the part of the weather vendors and government entities? Or, will naming storms cause homeowners to be on heightened alert for storm-related home damage, a reaction that could result in an increase in both legitimate and illegitimate claims? 
Naming storms could also lead to confusion over what a “named storm” means in the policy context. Typically, property policies use the term “named storm” to refer to storm systems that have been named by the National Hurricane Center or the National Weather Service. In the event of a “named storm,” a named storm deducible may apply, oftentimes a percent of the total insured value of the covered property. A named storm deducible is usually a grade below a hurricane deductible (also named by NWS/NHS) in terms of scope, and a grade above a wind or hail deductible.  To the extent a policy extends windstorm coverage (where it would otherwise be excluded), the policy definition of a windstorm may be based on official “named storm” criteria as well.
While typical policy language is clear that named storms are those that are officially named by NHC or NWS, it is nevertheless a bit confusing that an inland “named” winter storm, that only involves wind and rain, is not actually a true “named storm.” The trend in naming anything and everything might particularly confuse policyholders in the southern US, who are subject to tropical storms and yet are also exposed to “winter storms” that are not always snowy but are oftentimes wind-driven rain events. It may be important to recognize this potential confusion and address the issue with policyholders at the onset of any claim that may arise from one of these TWC “named storms.”
Posted by Megan Shutte