Geospatial technologies, such as GIS, aerial and satellite imagery, and analytical decision support systems, are increasingly being recognized by the insurance industry as valuable tools in the aftermath of natural disasters.

The ability to analyze archived and current information using automated change detection saves time, improves accuracies, and results in payments getting to policyholders more quickly. By working together, insurance companies and geospatial professionals are improving processes to better serve communities impacted by major disasters.

On Sep. 10, 2017, Hurricane Irma struck the Florida Keys, delivering 130-mph winds and causing a life-threatening storm surge. As the destructive gale worked its way north, massive power outages and flooding forced millions of people to evacuate to emergency shelters or leave the state altogether. 

At Citizens Property Insurance Corporation, located in Florida, the staff quickly realized that the widespread devastation of Hurricane Irma had touched nearly every one of their 450,000 policy holders. Immediately, the work of assessing the damage, reaching out to customers and settling claims began. 

The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) is a key player in the insurance industry, acting as an intermediary between law enforcement/first responders and insurance companies. To aid with post-disaster recovery efforts, NICB formed the Geospatial Intelligence Center (GIC) in partnership with Vexcel Imaging. 

Together, they lead a coalition of geospatial companies – including Esri and the UltraCam customer network – to acquire and provide convenient access to current high-resolution aerial imagery through a web-based viewer. By leveraging the UltraCam network dispersed across the country, the GIC strives to mobilize “blue sky” and rapid response aerial acquisition resources within two hours of any request.

“When applied to around 2,500 property/casualty insurance companies in the U.S., there are numerous time and cost benefits to acquiring 45-degree oblique and vertical aerial imagery and using automated feature and change detection to assess claims,” says Ryan Bank, managing director, GIC. “In addition, we support the work of first responders and law enforcement officers by providing access to all available imagery after a disaster.”

Improving Technology 

Keith Sandell, geospatial data science manager at Citizens, is an early proponent of using GIS and imagery to improve the claims process. In 2011, he wrote a GIS mapping application that pulls in current claim information and data from the National Hurricane Center and overlays forecast information across Citizens’ book of business. The application ultimately allows the claims department to calculate how many policies fall in the path of an impending weather event, which in turn determines the number of resources needed prior to a storm. Advance knowledge allows better allocation and more efficient use of staff and equipment. 

More recently, after Hurricane Matthew hit Florida in 2016, Citizens started working toward the issuance of an invitation to aerial imaging vendors to collect annual archival, post-catastrophe and on-demand drone imagery services.

“Our response to Matthew gave us a good idea of the type of resources we needed and confirmed our assumptions about how aerial photos would be useful,” Sandell says. “To prepare for the next hurricane, we identified areas of interest to be flown and developed flight plans for the most vulnerable regions. These plans came in very handy in our subsequent work with NICB.” 

Areas Highly Impacted

Within days of Hurricane Irma hitting Florida, the NICB GIC coordinated with the Florida Department of Emergency Management and Citizens to collect imagery of the highest priority areas. Initially, the coalition targeted 506-square-miles in the hurricane’s path using the UltraCam Osprey, a Vexcel Imaging oblique camera that provides a 45-degree view of building facades. This area included Greater Miami and the coast from Ft. Lauderdale to the Florida Keys.

Additionally, 13,787 square miles of vertical rooftop views were collected using the UltraCam Eagle aerial camera, which quickly captured the large areas in great detail. The high-resolution color data was acquired by GPI Geospatial, Keystone Aerial Surveys, Sanborn Map Company and Quantum Spatial. Rapid processing of the large volumes of collected data allowed geo-referenced imagery to be uploaded and made available within 24 hours of collection.

“The partnership with NICB resulted in unprecedented access to post-disaster aerials in a shorter period of time, with higher resolution and over larger areas of Florida, than any other response I’ve ever worked in the State of Florida Emergency Operations Center,” says Richard Butgereit, CIO, Florida Division of Emergency Management. “We were able to use the imagery to explore siting of disaster recovery centers in the Florida Keys and estimate extent and depth of flooding in residential areas. This dataset is also valuable for Hurricane Irma’s long-term recovery efforts, including monitoring for environmental impacts.”  

Citizens’ staff found the oblique imagery collected after the storm to be the most useful for easily identifying damage, particularly in areas with no ground access. 

“Our improved situational awareness sped up the process by several weeks,” Sandell says. “Using the Esri web-based viewer, we identified high-damage areas, which helped with placement of RVs and tents at Citizens Response Centers (CRC). Policyholders could come to a CRC and receive a check on the spot to cover temporary living expenses because the post-storm aerial photography corroborated their stories.”

Lessons Learned from Hurricane Irma

By collaborating with NICB GIC to integrate innovative geospatial technologies into the disaster recovery process, emergency responders and Citizens were able to respond more quickly after Hurricane Irma. 

“A centralized archive of up-to-date high-resolution aerial imagery, including post-disaster aerials available as cached web mapping services and available for download, would be highly beneficial to future emergency response activities,” Butgereit says. “By partnering with existing technology parties, as NICB GIC is doing, it is advancing the vision of bringing Imagery for the nation to fruition.”

The post-Irma imagery accessible via Esri’s web-based viewer gave visibility into areas not accessible on the ground, and helped Citizens allocate its resources as effectively and efficiently as possible. The change detection algorithms allowed for more accurate damage assessment, so claims could be paid in a timely manner. 

Citizens plans to continue to investigate how best to apply geospatial technologies to improve its service to customers.

“During Hurricane Irma, our entire coverage area experienced damaging winds, severe rain and/or flooding,” Sandell says. “We relied on the aerial imagery to identify the hardest hit areas, including over 200 mobile home parks, and we were able to disseminate information about how to file claims more quickly, which made our customers happy. To date, we’ve paid out a total of $637 million in claims. NICB did a fabulous job.”