Earthquake Insurance: Protect your Assets and Investments

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Earthquake Hazards in the United States

Although the West Coast and Alaska generally has the greatest earthquake activity, the potential for earthquakes exist almost everywhere in the United States. Active areas in the Midwest include: 1) The New Madrid Seismic Zone in southeastern Missouri which has the potential to impact eight states: Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee; and 2) The Wabash Valley Seismic Zone along Illinois–Indiana border that would impact three states: Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky. In Eastern United States, another active region is the Charleston area in South Carolina.

Earthquake Prediction in California and the Midwest

California has 99.7% probability of having a moment magnitude Mw = 6.7 earthquake (same as Northridge event) during the next 30 years. The southern segment of San Andreas Fault has the highest probability of generating such an earthquake in Southern California with a 67% chance of striking Los Angeles Area, while Hayward Fault is the most likely earthquake source in Northern California with a 63% chance of striking San Francisco Bay Area. Larger earthquakes are less likely during the same time frame; 94%, 46% and 4.5% for Mw = 7.0, 7.5, and 8.0, respectively. On the other hand, the probability of a New Madrid earthquake of Mw = 6.0 or greater occurring in the next 50 years is 25–40%, while a repeat of the 1811-1812 earthquakes of Mw = 7.7 is 7–10% according to the United States Geological Survey. However, most structures in the Midwest were not built to withstand earthquake shaking. Moreover, earthquake awareness and preparedness in the Midwest have lagged far behind as compared to the West Coast.

What if your Home is Destroyed or Partially Damaged?

Many people wrongly believe that the United States Government will take care of all their financial needs if they suffer losses in an earthquake which is not true. In fact, the federal disaster relief programs are designed to help you get partly back on your feet but not to replace everything you lose. In the meantime, homeowners insurance does not cover earthquake damage to your home and possessions. Therefore, most of the property damage caused by an earthquake will end up being handled and paid for by you. In addition, you are still responsible for your existing debts such as mortgage, auto loans, and credit card payments even if your home is destroyed or partially damaged.

How to Protect your Assets and Investments?

If you own your home, it is probably your biggest financial asset. You have worked hard to secure your piece of the American Dream to become a homeowner. Your assets and investments made in personal belongings may be at risk when an earthquake strikes as your home will probably have some level of damage. How do you plan to protect these assets and investments from the costs of destructive earthquakes? Earthquake preparedness plans that include retrofitting your home and mitigating its contents are effective ways for protection against earthquake damage. Another option for managing the potential costs is to buy earthquake insurance.

Earthquake Insurance

Earthquake insurance provides coverage for ground shaking that may destroy your home, business, and personal belongings. Coverage for other kinds of damage that may result from earthquakes, such as fire and water damage due to burst gas and water pipes, is provided by standard homeowner and business insurance policies. On the other hand, cars and other vehicles are covered for earthquake damage only under the comprehensive part of the auto insurance policy. The states of California, Washington, Missouri, Tennessee, Oregon, Illinois, New York, Kentucky, Florida, and Indiana are the top 10 largest markets for earthquake insurance coverage. Earthquake insurance premiums differ widely by location, insurance company, and the construction material of your home. Older buildings cost more to insure than newer ones. Wood-frame structures benefit from lower rates than unreinforced masonry buildings as they tend to withstand earthquake forces better. A wood frame house in the Pacific Northwest costs $1–3 per $1,000 worth of coverage but less than $0.50 on the East Coast, while an unreinforced masonry home costs $3–15 per $1,000 in the Pacific Northwest but $0.60–0.90 in New York.

Do You Need Earthquake Insurance?

A wise decision on earthquake insurance is crucial if you live in an active seismic region. My family and I survived the 1995 Kobe Earthquake because I decided to live in a relatively new reinforced concrete apartment building although the rent was higher than traditional Japanese wooden houses. The three story main building stood still after the earthquake except an extension that partially collapsed, while many of the surrounding traditional houses completely collapsed. However, the apartment contents were damaged including the refrigerator, a microwave, and a large TV. The answers to the following questions may help you to decide if earthquake insurance is right for you:

  1. Do you know the plausible earthquake hazard at your home?
  2. How much would it cost to repair/rebuild your home?
  3. Can you afford paying the mortgage while also paying to repair/rebuild your home?
  4. Can you afford losing your home equity?
  5. How much would it cost to replace your household expensive possessions (furniture, computers, HDTV’s, refrigerators, etc) if destroyed?
  6. How much would temporary accommodations cost if you cannot live in your home after the earthquake?

Concluding Remarks

It is surprising to know that only 12% of California residents currently have earthquake insurance coverage down from 33% in 1996 when the devastating 1994 Northridge Earthquake was still fresh in people’s minds. On the other hand, 35% of Missouri homes have earthquake insurance coverage which seems reasonable. On January 09, 2010 the powerful Mw = 6.5 Offshore Northern California Earthquake caused moderate damage to the City of Eureka and elsewhere in Humboldt County. Few days later, on January 12, 2010, a catastophic Mw = 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti which is considered to be one of the deadliest quakes in the last four decades. These earthquakes serve as a reminder for Californians to reconsider retrofitting their homes, mitigating their contents, and buying earthquake insurance to manage potential costs of future inevitable earthquakes.

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