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Hard lessons from the Napa, California, earthquake

The ALERT™ (AIR Loss Estimates in Real Time) sent  by AIR Worldwide, our fellow Verisk Analytics business, regarding the Napa, California, earthquake on August 26 really struck home for me. The initial report and follow-up ALERT gave an on-site assessment of damage and featured compelling photos. One paragraph in particular stayed with me:

“In general, the observed ground motions were below design code levels extant in California today. Not surprisingly, therefore, the most significant damage that the AIR damage survey team observed was to older, unreinforced masonry (URM) buildings — specifically to their walls, chimneys, parapets, and foundations. Structural damage to newer construction was generally limited. Most of the damage and losses will be driven by commercial properties and contents.”

It may seem pretty straightforward and even a little dull to you, but to me, it goes right to the core of what ISO Community Hazard Mitigation does. We manage the Building Code Effectiveness Grading Schedule (BCEGS®) program, and one of our main goals is to help prevent damage due to earthquakes, wind, and other natural catastrophes.

Our mantra is simple: Municipalities with well-enforced, up-to-date building codes will demonstrate better loss experience when an event occurs, and insurance rates can reflect that. There are nearly 20,000 building department jurisdictions in the nation, and we assess almost all of them. Through BCEGS, we evaluate their current codes and code enforcement efforts and assign each municipality a BCEGS grade from 1 (exemplary commitment to building code enforcement) to 10.

Insurers that use BCEGS can more accurately assign risk to individual properties and communities. The prospect of lessening catastrophe-related damage and ultimately lowering insurance costs provides an incentive for communities to enforce building codes rigorously — especially as they relate to windstorm and earthquake damage.

So, when I read that damage was contained to “older, unreinforced masonry buildings” and “damage to newer construction was generally limited,” I had mixed emotions. New construction generally performed as we would hope, and older buildings not built to current codes didn’t hold up nearly as well. The ALERT proved our mantra was true — but considering the hardships involved, it’s not always fun to be right.

For more information on ISO Community Hazard Mitigation and BCEGS, go to

Ralph Dorio

Ralph Dorio is the manager of ISO Community Hazard Mitigation.