How the Ultra-Wealthy are Making Themselves Immune to Natural Disasters

In tony enclaves across the country, rich people are diverting disaster with their own private armies of first responders

Kim Kardashian West couldn’t stop taking pictures of the Woolsey fire as she returned by private plane to L.A. last November. But it didn’t take her long to realize that the proximity of the flames to her 16,000-square-foot mansion meant that it would likely burn to the ground, like so many properties from Calabasas to Malibu. She rushed home, packed, and evacuated, taking time later to post on Instagram. “Pray for Calabasas,” she typed over a video of the fires and also added a praying-hands emoji.

But the home that she and her husband, Kanye West, bought in 2014 from Lisa Marie Presley for $20 million in the gated Hidden Hills enclave (and had been renovating for four years) did not turn to ash the way thousands of other homes did.

It wasn’t luck or a miracle that saved the house. And it wasn’t her connections to the White House. What saved the mansion was money. Like many of the wealthiest California residents, the couple had their own private firefighters, the media gleefully revealed, provided by their elite homeowner’s insurance policy. They weren’t the only people taking advantage of the perk. With premiums that can reach an additional $8,000 a year, wildfire defense services pay for firefighters who use their own equipment to spray water and fire-retardant gel to supplement the work of public first responders. And, of course, the private crews will return to remove the gel from homes that survive.

“We have several members who were able to return to their homes,” declares Kevin Daley, president of Pure’s western zone insurance division, which specializes in large homes exposed to coastlines and wildfire areas. “And we are extremely proud of that.”

The rich, we all know, tend to handle adversity differently, be it a crisis of health, reputation, marriage, or career. And as climate change accelerates the frequency and scale of hurricanes, floods, wildfires, and mudslides, they are finding their own ways of working the system. If they can hack the college admissions game to help their children’s SAT scores and application essays, why not try to do the same when faced with the wrath of cataclysmic natural disasters?

To cope with calamity, special insurance policies provide coverage for a wide range of scenarios. AIG Private Client Group, for example, employs an America’s Cup sailor to find terra firma storage for yachts before hurricanes. As a business model, protecting everything from pianos and antiques to wine collections before a disaster arrives is cheaper for insurers than the billions they would have to spend rebuilding and replacing properties. Claire Marmion of Haven Art Group, who consults with insurers, once had a Hamptons client submerge an outdoor work by Jeff Koons in a pool to protect it from gale-force winds. “Sometimes you have to look for the lesser of two evils,” she told The New York Times.

Other situations sometimes require you to ready at least two modes of transportation to get away. One anonymous head of an investment firm told The New Yorker last year: “I keep a helicopter gassed up all the time, and I have an underground bunker with an air-filtration system.” State-of-the-art bunkers, whether in the form of the concrete wine cellar where Richard Branson rode out Hurricane Irma in 2017 with his staff (“Haven’t had a sleepover quite like it,” he tweeted), gale-proof rooms, Quonset-style shelters, underground homes, or the luxury survival communities being developed by the company Vivos (“the ultimate life-assurance solution for high-net-worth families”), make it clear that when it comes to dealing with disaster, the rich are far more prepared than you and me. (And when the bunkers aren’t in use they make terrific storage facilities for art collections and vintage cars.)

High rollers are also acquiring properties in remote havens to ride out Armageddon itself. In 2015, PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel bought a 477-acre estate in New Zealand, which was on its way to becoming Gstaad for dedicated escapees before the government put a stop to land-grabbing foreigners. “The beauty is that these people buying blue-chip properties in exotic locations end up with a fabulous vacation home,” Steve Bitterman of Vault Insurance told the trade journal Risk & Insurance.

But a vacation home isn’t always the most comfortable place to steer clear of a disaster. When Superstorm Sandy slammed the East Coast in 2012, a procession of homeowners left their imperiled Hamptons digs for lengthy stays at luxe hotels, filing insurance claims to cover their bills. Another bougie exodus occurred in January 2018 in the wake of California’s Thomas fire and the devastating mudflows that followed, ravaging Santa Barbara, in one of the wealthiest zip codes in the country.

One young mother described to me how she fled her Montecito hillside home for shelter at the beachside Ritz-Carlton-owned Bacara resort. Her insurance provider took issue at first, but then gave in, as other insurers did for policyholders who took refuge at the area’s other intact luxury property, the Belmond El Encanto. “I’m used to a certain lifestyle, and I had hazard insurance, so why shouldn’t they pay for my stay at the Bacara?” the woman said. In addition to housing her and her children, she talked the resort into taking her five giant Newfoundland dogs. “And we all ended up having a fantastic time!”

Ellen DeGeneres and Brad Paisley at an invite-only fundraiser.

Patti Gutshall/Getty Images

Montecito suffered the loss of dozens of lives and nearly $400 million in property damage after the mudslides. But it’s difficult to ignore how quickly the prosperous community, with residents like Armie Hammer, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Oprah (see the YouTube video she posted from her estate), got back on its feet. Shortly after the calamity, the entire hillside had become a massive moneyed reconstruction zone on its way to a speedy recovery. Katy Perry, who is a local homeowner, teamed with Ellen DeGeneres and other bold-faced residents for an invitation-only benefit concert to raise relief money, as she did last fall with a fundraiser after the Malibu fires, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars at both events.

Fundraising, of course, is a go-to response by the rich, especially after a natural disaster. Save Venice (a socialite-packed organization with a big-ticket annual New York masquerade benefit) formed after a devastating 1966 flood. For storm-ravaged Saint Barts, Jimmy Buffet held a relief concert and restarted the annual sailing regatta not long after Hurricane Irma devastated the island. (Its quick rebound was striking compared to the status of Puerto Rico, which remained without electricity and drinking water for months.)

Not surprisingly, the rich don’t lose their homes nearly as frequently as their poorer counterparts. Homeowners in California spend lavishly on innovative structures that use less wood and more concrete as well as stone siding, metal roofs, and fire screens. As a result, these structures are more likely to survive wildfires. “We aren’t going to be designing on pure aesthetics anymore,” a disaster-conscious interior decorator recently told The Hollywood Reporter.

When Hurricane Michael leveled most of Mexico Beach in the Florida Panhandle last October, a single house remained standing. “We wanted to build it for the big one,” its Tennessee-based owner, a radiologist, told The New York Times. Constructed at twice the cost of surrounding homes, it has 40-foot-long pilings that extend into the sand, steel rebar, cable reinforcements, and extra concrete bolstering. In Miami Beach, meanwhile, a homeowner figured out how to deal with the flood risk. At $1,700 a square foot, his modest-size, multimillion-dollar concrete house features pocket doors and walls that don’t touch the floor, allowing winds to pass through the property rather than pummel it. Ten-foot-high waves can also roll over the salt-water-friendly landscaping below, turning his estate into a castle with a moat.

Stirring more controversy are the megarich owners of second homes in the Northeast. Those in Nantucket, where winter storms have devastating effects, try to protect their cliffside mansions from collapse by building retaining walls that are furiously opposed by local fishermen and environmentalists. Similar acrimony has been playing out in the Hamptons. “You have people putting up rock retaining walls and steel structures,” complains resident Bob DeLuca, who runs a community advocacy organization. As president of Long Island’s Group for the East End, he frequently sees neighbors suing each other and local government over what they can build to protect their home.

So far, no Hamptons-style lawsuits have plagued Santa Barbara, although residents of nearby city Carpinteria were none too happy when containers of contaminated mud from the disaster were deposited on their beach. “They would never dump all that mud in Montecito,” one cafe owner told me last April. Goleta, another modest area north of Santa Barbara, also got dumped on.

But a more public confrontation has erupted here over the private firefighters that protected the property of the Kardashian Wests and their well-to-do neighbors. Companies like Chubb’s Personal Risk Services provide advance aid to customers that can help curb fire danger—clearing brush, stuffing vents, and spraying fire retardants. But tensions flare during crisis moments when public first responders are risking their lives to save as many homes and lives as possible. Private firefighters are generally a less heroic breed—another example of the privatization of public services. Many take time to text anxious homeowners pictures of their properties while neighboring houses go up in smoke. That’s not the only issue, however. Several public first responders complain that private firefighters, who don’t always coordinate with their public counterparts and are not as highly trained, add to the risks. “You cannot arbitrarily throw people at these incidents,” Scott McLean, California’s fire deputy chief of information, said almost a year before the Woolsey fire brought attention to the issue. “It comes down to accountability and safety.”

But while the Kardashian Wests caused umbrage by paying a premium for their own salvation, their private fire force moved on at the couple’s instruction to save several homes of what would be extremely relieved and appreciative neighbors.

In his way, Rupert Murdoch managed in December 2017 to tame Mother Nature, too. The frightening Skirball fire that hit bucolic Bel Air slowed down on his property. It wasn’t just the local firefighters that contributed to saving much of the area. It was his 15-acre Moraga vineyard, which was so well irrigated that it may have acted as a fire wall.

Call it happenstance, foresight, or both, but even if money can’t buy happiness, it seems as though it can sometimes buy off Mother Nature.

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