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Businesses urged to prepare for extreme U.S. rain events

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U.S. businesses, depending on their location, should start preparing now for the increased, extreme rainfall that a changing climate would likely cause, according to FM Global.

The Johnston, Rhode Island-based insurer released a white paper entitled “Coping with Extremes: The Impact of Climate Change on Extreme Precipitation and Flooding in the United States and How Businesses Can Prepare Now” that includes the input of four leading atmospheric scientists.

“What is conclusive is that, based on strong theoretical expectations backed up by climate models, most places will experience more volatile weather, which is chaotic to begin with,” Kerry Emanuel, professor of atmospheric sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said in the report. “We feel climate change not so much through subtle changes in the mean, but through changes in the extreme.”

In general, the report said, wet areas of the country will likely become wetter and dry areas drier.

“Extreme events have the greatest potential to produce natural catastrophes that affect businesses, jobs and economies on a regional or global scale,” said the report released July 14.

Extreme wet or dry conditions can affect buildings, machinery, data centers, transportation networks, supply chains, people and sales. When companies have a choice, the experts said, they should site their facilities in nothing less than 500-year flood zones, where there is a 1-in-500 chance of a flood every year.

The report said now is the time for businesses to examine their buildings' ability to withstand flooding and evaluate their procedures for managing surface water, roof drainage and water supply. Also, companies should be careful about where they build new plants, factories and offices and closely evaluate the potential impact of extreme precipitation and flooding.

Companies should sharpen their focus on water management, by diverting water from property, optimizing drainage and protecting water supplies, and considering new weather extremes when managing supply chains.

“Certain regions of the United States are expected to be prone to more intense precipitation events and a potentially increased risk of flooding,” the white paper said. “Others are prone to less precipitation, prolonged droughts and a potentially increased risk of wildfires. Since these anticipated changes are not uniformly distributed geographically, it is recommended that businesses and property owners prepare for locally intense precipitation or drought considerations, depending on their location.”

The report also discussed psychological hurdles to preparations, as some business owners may lack a natural urgency to plan for extreme precipitation or flooding.

“Anthropologists cite generational memory threshold as a key to a given culture's adaptation to extreme weather events,” Mr. Emanuel said. “In a place where memory extends back 100 years, people might expect a single event of extreme rainfall and heavy winds, since such an event occurred 75 years ago. It's when the event is a 1-150-year massive hurricane that everything falls apart. Nobody builds for such events, and the result is colossal damage.”

The problem is further complicated, the report said, by the difficulty in predicting such extreme events. However, the study said there is a growing body of scientific evidence that the warming climate, allowing for natural variability, is already having an impact of the likelihood of more or less precipitation in certain regions.

The contributors to the report said business must recognize that climate change is happening and stressed the critical importance of water management.

Minghua Zhang, dean of the School of Marine Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York, said risk managers should make sure “they review the resilience of their buildings or new locations to withstand the impact of an extremely high rainfall event and area flooding.”