Wednesday, August 24, 2011

What a perfect time to introduce our new earthquake toolkit!

by Laura Williams

Yesterday’s earthquake (my first!) was lucky, in that there doesn’t seem to be much damage: a crack here, some debris there, but the Mid-Atlantic ended up mostly unscathed. I was particularly struck by this, as we have just begun work on a new disaster mitigation toolkit on earthquake damage mitigation.

This new toolkit will complement our existing toolkit on weather-related disasters – which primarily covers hurricanes and flooding (speaking of which – we might have a hurricane here, too, before the week is out!). One of the initial points we’ve focused on is how to encourage homeowners and landlords to improve existing structures to make them safer in the event of a disaster. This is a particular problem, as building codes generally require new structures to meet certain standards of resistance, but these are not retro-active. (See this article in Slate for an interesting read on the International Building Code and a comparison of requirements across the country.)

One way to encourage updates would be through insurance rebates or premium deductions for making a home safer. However, earthquake insurance is not required even in places where earthquakes are a known risk, such as California, where only 12 percent of homeowners hold insurance. This low rate of insurance has the additional problem of making any quake that does occur extremely expensive – obviously for those without insurance, but also for insurance companies which have trouble spreading the risk associated with an earthquake in such a small pool.

But the real lesson of yesterday is that earthquakes can happen just about anywhere. Fault lines crisscross the earth, and even “inactive” ones move from time to time. Perhaps there is only a damage-causing event every 100, 500, 1,000 years – but they happen, and getting property owners to think about that risk is another hurdle for ensuring people are properly insured.

This is a problem we’ll be thinking about for the next few months; share your ideas in the comments below.

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