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Prophecy Not Wanted

In the mid–1980s, Karen Clark of Karen Clark & Co. developed a catastrophe modeling system that she presented to insurers as a way to predict what kind of damage was possible with major storm systems. Clark informed insurers that they were underselling their property insurance products on the eastern coast of the United States. She presented data that showed that a catastrophic storm would cause many billions of dollars of damage and that insurers would likely be bankrupted.

At the time, insurers were not terribly interested in her data or her predictions. Immediately after Hurricane Andrew ravaged Florida in 1992, Clark’s company analyzed data about the strength of the storm, where it made landfall, and the number and type of properties that were likely impacted. She estimated that the hurricane had caused about $13 billion in damages. Insurers were certain that she was selling a doomsday scenario as previous storms had caused at most $3 or $4 billion in damages. As weeks unfolded and the reality of the devastation set in, however, insurers were forced to reckon with nearly $15 billion in damages. Many insurance companies were forced into bankruptcy, just as Clark had predicted almost 10 years earlier.

One might assume that having been proven right, Clark would be vindicated, and her services would be welcome in other markets. In some ways, this is true. Clark and her company are sought for their catastrophe models that can guide decision making. In other ways, they are actively ignored. She tells RadioLab reporters that her catastrophe models are not wanted in California, for instance, where her data shows that wildfire makes insurance propositions very risky. Apparently some would rather continue to build structures, live and work in places deemed highly valuable for their oceanic views or proximity to big business even if the odds are good that climate change and harsher weather outcomes will destroy homes, businesses and even claim human lives.

 
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