The bigger the calamity,the greater the likelihood that Randall Bell will be there.
“I’ve probably studied and consulted on more disasters around the world than anyone, ever,” says Bell, whose company, Landmark Research Group, has consulted on hundreds of insurance and litigation cases, including environmental contamination, construction defects, aircraft mishaps and natural and man-made disasters.
The 59-year-old Southern California native has measured damages at some of the worst modern catastrophes, including Chernobyl, the 2001 World Trade Center attack, Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill. He’s rendered opinions on the effects of Bikini Atoll nuclear tests, representing Marshall Islanders who won $2 billion in claims. Additionally, he’s provided expert analysis on diminution in value in infamous criminal cases such as the slayings of JonBenet Ramsey and Nicole Brown Simpson and the 1997 Heaven’s Gate cult mass suicide.
He’s also a respected author of more than a dozen books and academic papers, including one commonly used as a university text that’s acclaimed by industry professionals. Bell’s clients typically are insurance companies or property owners, “Anybody who has an interest in real estate. I’m doing cases right now for the federal government, oil companies and homeowners.”
Bell just returned from Puerto Rico and Houston, studying the aftermaths of last year’s devastating hurricanes.
“Hurricane damage just takes the cake in terms of widespread catastrophic multibillion-dollar damage. And yet we get acclimated because we hear about hurricanes all the time. We just switch the channel. But I can tell you many people in Puerto Rico and Houston very much are still living almost homeless. Their homes are ripped apart and they’re still rebuilding,” he said.
With an undergraduate degree in finance and accounting from Brigham Young University and master’s from UCLA, Bell spent a few years as a basic commercial property appraiser. But he decided the industry lacked specialists who can accurately determine loss of value from disasters. So in the early 1990s, he began to study close-to-home events like the L.A. riots and the magnitude 6.7 Northridge earthquake that shook the San Fernando Valley just north of Los Angeles.
Bell’s unique experience led him to join Price Waterhouse, where he launched the company’s damage group. After the merger with Coopers & Lybrand he went on his own again and also wrote “Real Estate Damages: An Analysis of Detrimental Conditions.” It’s among several of his that have been published by the Appraisal Institute and others.
His other writings include the impact of airport noise on homes as well as issues involving asbestos, contaminated waterways, how Megan’s Law can affect real estate values and the real estate broker’s due-diligence responsibilities. Despite having earned the nickname Dr. Disaster, Bell comes across as an optimist and humanitarian who sees mostmishaps as completely avoidable.
With Chernobyl, for instance, he dismisses perceptions that it was a highly technical fault, explaining, “It was a couple of clowns who were curious, began playing with knobs and turned off seven safety systems to see what would happen.”
Bell’s years of study of the effects of Hurricane Katrina, requiring about two dozen visits to New Orleans, gave him background and source material for his doctoral dissertation from Santa Barbara’s Fielding Graduate University on how to effectively communicate effects of disasters on people.
“It took a solid 10 years for New Orleans’ communities to get back to something that looked pretty normal,” he said, adding that a similar recovery for Puerto Rico and Houston will take years.
“I measure the economics of damage but I’ve also expanded into the sociology of it all in terms of what I call ‘post-traumatic thriving.’” His latest book, “Me We Do Be” published last year, uses original research and anecdotes that promote a correlation between healthy habits and happiness and success. He has given a TED talk and his recent trips to Puerto Rico mostly involve volunteering.
His approach to business is just as straightforward.
“My philosophy is pretty simple and that has served me very, very well in my career. If there is exposure, for example, to a contaminant, I want to be on the plaintiff’s side.” Conversely, if there’s no exposure he likes to sit at the defense table.
As for global warming, he says it’s impossible to take sides.
“Who do you sue? Who do you get mad at?” In his writings on the subject, he argues, “Climate change has become less of a theoretical debate and more of a reality in the minds of a majority of Americans.”
“I was just in Miami and had lunch with a developer. He took me to a coastal subdivision. Docks in the back of these homes used to be a foot or two above water. Now they’re getting more days where the water level is basically flush with the top of the deck. All they can do is raise their storm walls,” he said.
“Insurance companies, citing actual damages and perceived future risks, dramatically are raising many premiums two- or three-fold or cancelling policies altogether,” he said.
A recent article in the journal of Environmental Research Letters, shows homes in Miami-Dade County are rising in value more slowly near sea level than those at higher elevations. Another paper by University of Colorado at Boulder and Penn State researchers studied Boston, New York City and other sea-level metros, concluding that homes threatened by rising seas are being discounted an average of 7% compared to less exposed properties.
As for Houston, Bell says he is working for a group of attorneys representing thousands of homeowners. He says he’s been deeply involved for the last three months and expects his work won’t be finished before the end of the year.
“There are a lot of estimates out there. But I actually do the calculation. That’s my responsibility. Until I’m finished I won’t even guess.”