Many people mistakenly believe that if they do not live along the West Coast – or more precisely, on a fault along the West Coast – they are immune to earthquakes and related disasters like tsunamis, fires, and mudslides. However, the majority of Americans live in an area with significant risk of a magnitude 4 or higher earthquake every 50 years.
There are two basic types of earthquake damage: direct and indirect. Direct damage is pretty easy to understand: the ground under a structure shakes and the building and its contents are damaged or destroyed as a result. Indirect damage can occur to buildings that are miles from an earthquake’s epicenter or, in the case of a tsunami, hundreds or thousands of miles away. This indirect damage also counts fires or chemical and nuclear disasters.
Understanding the risks is the first line of defense when it comes to earthquakes. This guide will help you better understand how to mitigate your actual risks and make sure your home insurance has you covered.
Who’s at Risk
The greatest risk of large earthquakes in the United States is found in states that border the “Ring of Fire” that circles the Pacific ocean and includes coastal California, Oregon and Washington, plus all of Alaska and the Hawaiian Islands. On the East Coast there is a very high risk region in coastal Georgia in and around Savannah. The last, and most surprising, high risk region is located in southeastern Missouri near the town of New Madrid.
The risk of both direct and indirect damage extends well beyond where the actual quake occurs. For example, the magnitude 6.8 quake of 1895 that struck New Madrid, Mo., caused damage in nearly two dozen states, affecting people as far away as New York and Pennsylvania. In many parts of the country, the danger of earthquakes appears to be increasing. While the cause for this sudden boost in seismic activity remains unknown, early indications are that the number of small to moderate size earthquakes is increasing in areas where hydraulic fracturing, commonly called ‘fracking,’ is taking place.
Direct and Indirect Damage
Living in a high risk earthquake zone places your home at the greatest risk from direct damage. Earthquakes occur when the earth’s crust shifts abruptly; the speed and scope of the movement contribute to the strength of the earthquake, which then causes the surface of the earth to shake violently. Damage is caused by the back and forth motion of the earth’s crust, causing vibrations to ripple through the ground.
Indirect damage affects conveniences we take for granted, such as water for drinking and natural gas for cooking, which are carried to our homes by underground pipelines that can be ruptured in a quake. These occurrences may result in floods, sinkholes, or fires – each of which can cause damage that quickly spreads beyond the immediate quake zone. Indirect damage can be far more devastating and long-lasting than the damage from the actual quake. The magnitude 9.0 quake that struck Japan in 2011 illustrates the impact of indirect damage; more than 18,000 people perished in the disaster, but according to U.S. News & World Report, nearly 90 percent were killed by the powerful tsunami that resulted from the quake.
Covered or Uncovered: Earthquake Insurance and Your Home
Homeowners and business owners should read and review their home insurance policies on a regular basis and have a good understanding of what is and isn’t covered. Most standard packages will not cover most of the damage done by earthquakes. This especially holds true for people who incorrectly assume living in lower risk areas means there is no risk to their property or their safety.
According to a report from the United Services Automobile Association (USAA), earthquake insurance premium rates are determined by a number of factors, including the home’s geographical location, construction style, and market value. “Wood-framed houses tend to withstand earthquakes better than brick homes,” says Janice Gonzalez, assistant vice president of Underwriting at USAA. “And many newer homes in earthquake hazard areas use updated construction methods to make them more quake-resistant. Those factors impact your premiums.”
The report also notes the deductible is another important earthquake insurance consideration for homeowners. Generally speaking, this amount is calculated as a percentage of the home’s overall value. Let’s say your house is worth $300,000, and your earthquake insurance policy mandates a 10-percent deductible; in the event of a massive quake, your policy will only cover damages if the total amount surpasses $30,000. $29,500 in damages? You’re footing the whole bill, with or without quake coverage.
Additionally, most earthquake insurance policies will not cover most types of indirect damage, such as flooding, fires, or other disasters resulting from the initial tremors. For this reason, property owners should take precautions to mitigate the extent of quake damage (of both the direct and indirect varieties) to their home or business.
Shake, Rattle and Roll: What You Should Do Beyond Home Insurance
The first rule of reducing damage to your home from earthquakes is regular maintenance. For people living in areas prone to small tremors, this means regularly inspecting your home’s foundation and structural integrity, as well as the stability of your surrounding property. The cumulative effect of several instances of minor shaking might result in cracks that go unnoticed until a slightly larger quake turns them into a major problem.
Pipe joints are particularly susceptible to damage from repeated exposure to vibration and shaking. Checking water and gas lines that come into your home for signs of damage can mean the difference between a basement full of water and a basement that remains dry after a quake strikes.
Gas, whether it’s propane stored in a tank outside your home or natural gas originating from a pipe, can cause catastrophic damage in the event of an earthquake. For most homeowners, gas powers the hot water heater, furnace, and stove; damage to these pipes can mean a serious fire or explosion in your house. Regular inspections will always be the best kind of prevention. USAA also recommends property owners equip gas lines with emergency shut-off valves.
More people are injured during quakes from falling objects inside their home than they are from collapsed walls and ceilings. Securing everything at risk of collapsing, such as bookcases or entertainment centers, can prevent injuries, or even save lives. Placing heavier items on lower shelves and securing anything with wheels will prevent them from become projectiles when the ground begins to shake.
In addition, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) urges homeowners to take the following precautions:
- Compile an emergency response kit (food, water, and medical supplies that will sustain everyone in your family for 72 hours)
- Store all large, breakable items (such as glassware and china), as well as toxic substances like pesticides and weed-killers, in low shelves with locking mechanisms.
- Hang pictures, mirrors, and other large wall objects away from areas where people sit or sleep.
- Brace the water heater, refrigerator, furnace, and other appliances using wall studs and floor bolts.
- Stage routine earthquake drills with your family, particularly if you have young children.
The Funny Thing About Statistics
Earthquakes tend to be cyclical; for example, the San Andreas and New Madrid fault lines (in California and Missouri, respectively) are statistically likely to produce a major quake every hundred or so years, but neither one has caused a major quake within the last century. Experts argue that the odds of the next big quake striking either of these fault lines tomorrow is just as likely as another hundred years passing without incident.
The point is that dismissing a risk because on average your location is not due for an event for a hundred years is risky bordering on foolish. Decisions about home insurance should not be made based on the chances of damage occurring, but rather on your ability to absorb the cost of the damage when something disastrous happens.