Parish looks to cut risks

Jefferson Parish’s emergency management department is linking with a private analytics firm to do a comprehensive assessment of the parish’s vulnerability to natural disasters and provide some ways to minimize that risk.

Col. David Dysart, the emergency management director, said his office has begun a pilot program with Verisk Analytics that will study the potential for property loss throughout New Orleans, Jefferson Parish, Plaquemines Parish and St. Bernard Parish for a wide variety of natural disasters.

In addition, the group will do an in-depth review of the parish’s three major governmental buildings in Gretna and offer suggestions on how to reduce their structural damage risk. The parish’s homeland security committee already has approved the program, and work should begin shortly.

Dysart said the program is just another way to bolster the parish’s planning and preparation for natural disasters. Verisk Analytics does risk assessment for insurance companies throughout the country and can provide officials with information on which areas sustain the most property loss and how those projected losses vary depending on the type of disaster. Dysart called the survey an important element to improving the parish’s overall plan, Dysart said.

“It’s just a way for us to validate what we already have and see if there is something new that we haven’t seen before,” he said. “One of the first steps of any plan is to conduct a good assessment.”

The pilot program grew out of discussions between Dysart and Verisk about unrelated projects in the parish. Dysart realized that through its risk assessment work, Verisk has collected tons of data about public, commercial and residential property throughout the metropolitan area. In addition, one of the company’s subsidiaries uses something called “probabilistic catastrophic modeling,” which uses simulations of thousands of incidents to predict their loss potential.

Both the company and the parish saw the pilot program as an opportunity, Dysart said. “They’re looking at this as an opportunity to develop a program that they can then market to other communities,” Dysart said. “It’s the first (program) of its kind, and it’s never been done before that I’m aware of.”

He acknowledged that the parish had done plenty of its own risk assessments, and after Hurricane Katrina FEMA officials also did assessments on damaged buildings. But Verisk has access to information that the parish never possessed, and its focus is different from FEMA’s. FEMA officials narrowly focus on individual buildings and their damage, while Dysart expects Verisk’s assessment to provide a big picture view of the parish.

“The only thing (FEMA does) is fix what’s already been broken or damaged,” Dysart said.

He added that it’s possible that individual businesses may be able to see particular risks and negotiate deals with their insurance companies to reduce their premiums by doing some mitigation work.

Ultimately, the plan will help government agencies develop priorities for how they allocate resources and personnel, he said. Every disaster, particularly hurricanes, costs the parish money, and it’s important to know the best way to reduce those costs.

“If we know what we’re going to be facing then, what can we do now?” Dysart said.

The listing of natural disasters and the prediction of damage is free to the parish. The only cost is $5,000 to do individual risk assessments for the parish’s Gretna governmental complex, Fifth Circuit courthouse and Emergency Operations Center. The assessments provide concrete examples of improvements the parish can make and offer a glimpse at how private companies consider risks and values, Dysart said.