Boston remembers its Great Molasses Disaster


We recently passed the 100 year anniversary of the huge Boston Molasses Disaster, which occurred on January 5, 1919. In today’s world, it can be hard to imagine how a household product could cause a disaster that would lead to the death of 21 people, more than 150 injuries and an entire neighborhood being leveled. That was indeed the case when 2.3 million gallons of molasses burst from a 50-foot tall North End storage tank with powerful force.

Molasses was in important staple of the day, a common sweetener. In addition to household kitchen uses, molasses was a key ingredient in rum and was once used in the manufacture of munitions.

The disaster occurred just after lunchtime on an unseasonably warm January day in a bustling Boston neighborhood. Insurance Journal describes the event:

The initial wave rose at least 25 feet high – nearly as tall as an NFL goalpost – and it obliterated everything in its path, killing 21 people and injuring 150 others. Rivets popped like machine-gun fire. Elevated railway tracks buckled. Warehouses and firehouses were pushed around like game pieces on a Monopoly board. Tenements were reduced to kindling.

Outrunning the molasses was out of the question. The first of it raced through the harborside neighborhood at 35 mph. Not even Usain Bolt, who clocked just under 28 mph at his world-record fastest, could have sprinted to safety.

The storage tank was owned by Purity Distilling Company. After the disaster, they tried to blame the explosion on bombs set by anarchists. The real source of the disaster was a confluence of predictable factors, primarily a poorly-constructed, overloaded storage tank, so badly constructed that it was painted brown to mask all the leakage.

A page dedicated to the molasses disaster with links to historical accounts says:

“Envision a disaster scene with smashed buildings, overturned vehicles, drowned and crushed victims, and terrified survivors running away covered in molasses. Like the modern-day disasters with which we are unfortunately familiar, there was chaos, terror, buildings in ruins, victims to be dug out, trapped survivors to be rescued, rescue workers among the victims, and anguished families rushing to relief centers to find their relatives. It was like any horrible disaster scene, with the addition that everything was covered in smelly sticky brown molasses.”

Agency Checklists also features an article on the disaster, including several photos. They note that the disaster marked the beginning of stricter construction codes and accountability.

“According to a Time magazine article on the flood, the resulting court case in which the U.S. Industrial Alcohol (USIA) corporation, owner of the Purity Distilling Company who operated the tanks, was forced to pay “… restitution amounting to about $15 million in today’s money” due to the structural weakness of the tanks used to hold the molasses. It was revealed during the ensuing lawsuit that the engineer who oversaw the construction of the North End tanks did not even know how to read blueprints, and that the tanks has subsequently been painted to match the color of molasses in order to hide the constant leaks in the tank.

As a result of these revelations and the tragedy which resulted from such negligence, Massachusetts instituted stricter construction codes, essentially creating the idea and requirement of “accountability in construction.”

A century ago, liability insurance was in its early days. ( IRMI: Early Liability Coverage.) Businesses rarely had adequate insurance and the courts were often a victim’s only financial remedy for damages or loss.

Today, business insurance is a social safety net that protects a business owner from financial losses and provides financial remedy for personal injury, death and property loss by third parties, as well as for a business owner’s litigation costs. In addition, insurance companies play another important role, providing an additional layer of public protection through risk and loss exposure identification during the underwriting process, as well as loss prevention expertise for business owners.

If you’re interested in more information on this unusual disaster, we’ve included a few links and a video clip of a 22-minute video documentary.

Update your life insurance beneficiaries!


man updating beneficiaries on life insurance policy

Pop quiz: When is the last time you updated your life insurance beneficiaries and beneficiaries on other important financial documents?

If you are like most people, you probably don’t think about your beneficiaries very often, but you should. Financial advisers say that failing to keep your beneficiaries up-to-date is a common and costly mistake. Failure to periodically update your beneficiaries could have unintended consequences. You’d probably prefer that your current spouse rather than a former spouse would be the beneficiary of your assets – but if you haven’t updated your paperwork, your ex could see a big payday on your passing!

As you prep for tax filing and gather your financial documents, it’s a good time to add beneficiary updates to your checklist to be sure that your designated beneficiaries are up to date. Life and circumstances change. Parents die, marriages dissolve, children are born, and any of these events may warrant a change in beneficiaries.

What documents should you check? In the linked article above, financial advisers say:

In addition to IRAs of the traditional, Roth, SIMPLE and SEP varieties, beneficiaries should be checked on 401(k) plans, 403(b) and deferred-compensation employer plans, life insurance policies, 529 education accounts and any bank or other account designated as “Transfer on Death.”

Here are some best practices to consider when naming beneficiaries:

Always name a beneficiary. People who have wills often think they have their beneficiaries covered, but this assumption can be wrong. Generally, beneficiaries named in insurance policies and retirement plans will take precedence over any instructions you leave in your will. Make sure you have specified individuals as beneficiaries in your policies and plans. People often name their “estate” as the beneficiary but this can lead to benefits being tied up in probate court. Failure to name a beneficiary may also mean that you miss out on certain plan or policy advantages. For example, if you name an estate as beneficiary, an IRA will be liquidated on your death and taxes will be due. If your spouse is named as beneficiary, he or she could potentially continue to enjoy tax-free growth.

Be specific. Avoid ambiguous language. Simply stating “my husband” or “my niece” may not be sufficient, particularly in instances of multiple marriages. It’s a good idea to use full names of intended beneficiaries to avoid potential confusion or disputes.

Name a secondary beneficiary. Make sure that it will be you and not your state law that determines who will be the recipient of your policy benefits. If your primary beneficiary should pass away and you have not named a secondary or contingent beneficiary, your insurance policy or retirement plan will be distributed according to your will. If you have no will, the decision will default to state law.

Keep important records in a secure place and tell a trusted family member what and where they are. Many people die suddenly without leaving instructions as to where a will, insurance papers and other important records are kept. All too often, benefits go unclaimed because family members don’t know about potential benefits or can’t find important account information. Bank accounts and insurance policies are overlooked. Make sure someone in your family is familiar with your most important records and where they are kept.

Further reading:

You can also talk to your independent insurance agent about updating your life insurance. Don’t have life insurance or don’t have an independent insurance agent? If you live in New England, find a Renaissance Alliance insurance agent near you to help you with life, auto, homeowners, and many other types of insurance.

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Emerging risks: Car hacking


illustration of vehicle cybersecurity

As our cars and trucks become more computerized, the potential risk of a cyber attack increases. We have an increasing array of technologies in our vehicles designed to improve our safety, our convenience and our comfort – from electronics, sensors and wireless connectivity to assistive technologies for crash prevention and parking assist. Technologists say that the modern car has at least 100 million lines of code in various computer systems. That increases our potential risks for bad actors to hack our cars.

Innovation & Tech Today discusses these vehicle cybersecurity risks and gives examples of our increasing exposure:

  • Mobile apps used to control car features (like remote start) are proliferating and can expose data and vehicle functions if they’re not properly secured.

  • Apps can now be downloaded to your car’s infotainment system, potentially including embedded malware.

  • On-Board Diagnostic (OBD) dongles are harder to get to (typically, you have to be in the car), but they provide access to the critical CAN bus that controls the car’s operating functions.

  • Key fobs that use a signal to open car doors are vulnerable to hacking, giving access to the vehicle.

To see some of these risks in action, check out this video where Consumer Reports and the National Highway Traffic & Safety Administration (NHTSA) team up in the test field.

There was also a famous example of jeep that was attacked by a hack that brought it to a standstill on the highway. This was a controlled experiment but it is pretty dramatic. The experiment had wide attention and led to a recall of 1/4 million vehicles.

So what can you do to prevent your car from being hacked?

If you drive an old beater with minimal technology, your risks are on the low side, but if you are an early adapter of new technologies and conveniences, you need to be alert and informed about the potential – that’s step one. Keyless car systems, for example, up the risk ante so be an informed consumer. Security firm AVG offers the following 6 steps to protect your car from hacks.

  • Keep in touch with your car’s manufacturer

  • Update your car’s software

  • Store your keyless remote in the fridge (or faraday bag)

  • Turn off your car’s Bluetooth and Wi-Fi when not in use

  • Hide your car’s Wi-Fi password

  • Scan USB drives before plugging them into your car

If storing your keyless remote in the fridge sounds wacky, check their tips in the linked article to learn more about each recommendation. They also offer steps you should take if you think your car has been hacked.

In addition to taking your own steps to increase security, the industry and security watchdogs are monitoring this issue and taking regulatory steps. Follow NHTSA – vehicle cybersecurity for ongoing reports and updates.

Keyless car owner alert: Carbon monoxide poisonings


keyless ignition photo

If you have a keyless car system, you may be at heightened risk of a potentially deadly problem: More than two dozen people have died and another several dozen others have debilitating illnesses such as brain injuries related to carbon monoxide poisoning, according to a new York Times report: Deadly Convenience: Keyless Cars and Their Carbon Monoxide Toll.

Keyless ignitions are very popular. Citing the auto information website Edmunds, the NYT says keyless systems are now standard in over half of the 17 million new vehicles sold annually in the United States. But because the cars are so easy to turn on and off with the flick of a button, it can be all too easy to become distracted and not turn the car off – or to think it has been turned off when it hasn’t. Consumer Reports describes the problem : “If the car is parked in a closed garage attached to a house, especially a basement-level garage, carbon monoxide fumes from the idling engine may seep into the living area, possibly harming anyone in the house.”

The problem can be even worse with silent hybrids:

“A subset of keyless-ignition cars, hybrids and plug-in hybrids, pose an even stealthier problem, because they are virtually silent when in electric mode, which they may well be when sitting still after parking. A driver doesn’t have to be absent-minded to assume that the car is shut down—after all, the engine isn’t running. But the car may not be truly off. The engine could restart itself, say to address a climate control need, potentially sending carbon monoxide into the residence.”

The risk was identified early by safety advocates. From the NYT article:

“The risk identified initially was theft, because drivers might leave the key fob in the vehicle by accident. (In conventional ignitions, under regulations adopted in the 1990s, the key cannot be removed unless the car is in park.) The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s general counsel warned automakers in 2002 that keyless ignitions would be prone to mishaps arising from human error. In 2006, the agency updated its regulations to state that with keyless ignitions, “a warning must be sufficient to catch a driver’s attention before he or she exits the vehicle without the keys.”

Many safety advocates such as Consumer Reports and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are asking automakers to add safety features to prevent this, such as an audible alert or an automatic shutoff when a driver leaves the car. Some cars have safety features but most don’t – ” … a survey of 17 car companies by The New York Times found that while some automakers go beyond the features recommended by the standards group, others fall short.”

For now in many keyless cars, the burden of safety falls directly on the driver. Here are a few tips:

  • When purchasing a car with a keyless system, ask about safety features
  • Read your owner’s manual to understand how your system works
  • Be aware of the problem and take extra precautions to shut vehicles down
  • Have a working carbon monoxide detector in your home