Insurance against the next ‘big one’


  • Saturday, September 20, 2008 1:00am
  • Business

This home in the new Sierra development near the end of West Beach is being seismically prepped to withstand an earthquake. This preparation is now standard for home builders.

Whidbey Island Insurance agent Tony Read remembers when the 6.8 magnitude Nisqually earthquake, centered near Olympia, rocked his office in 2001.

“The one in 2001 lasted an entire minute and the whole office looked like silly putty,” recalled Read. “I crawled out on my hands and knees.”

After that wake-up call, Read remembers “at that time, the phone rang off the hook” with earthquake insurance inquires. For some homeowners, it was too late.

What about now?

“People aren’t worried about earthquakes,” Read said, and that concerns him.

Most homeowners don’t have earthquake insurance, but as with floods, the time to consider buying it is before one occurs.

There is a chance the “big one” could strike Whidbey Island at any time. So, what can homeowners do in advance to protect their home and loved ones?

Because of the island’s geological location, an important decision homeowners have to face is whether or not to add earthquake insurance to the plethora of other insurance products they already have.

“Western Washington and the Puget Sound is the riskiest region for earthquake damage,” said Bill Steele, University of Washington seismologist and director of Information Services at the Pacific Northwest Seismology Network. “Seattle is the seventh-highest risk city. All the other six are in California.”

The Island County Department of Emergency Management lists key earthquake preparation measures on its Web site. People should “consider buying earthquake insurance,” and “ensure (their) house is firmly affixed to its foundation.” It states other items should be properly stored, and that important water, heating and electrical units should be securely fastened.

Steele said a homeowner’s first priority is to be sure everyone comes out of an earthquake in good condition. The first step is to make sure one’s home is securely attached to its foundation. In some cases, homes built before 1980 may not meet current earthquake safety codes unless they are seismically retrofitted.

“If you slide off the foundation, you have a real mess,” said Steele, who himself is working on retrofitting his 1907 home. “Invest a little bit to bolt your house to the foundation.”

Seismic retrofitting can be a costly endeavor if you hire a contractor.

“Today, we’re spending money on hardware, like the bolts,” said Scott Yonkman, co-owner of Yonkman Construction, who has been building and remodeling homes on the island for nearly 30 years. “We’ll spend about $2,000 to $3,000 on hardware and $2,000 on the labor on a fairly simple system.”

When considering earthquake insurance, prospective buyers should “evaluate the chances of the catastrophic quake,” Steele said. “Deductibles have increased, but I think it’s a valid choice when considering one’s financial planning. Earthquake insurance is one tool to offset the risk of loss.”

Local insurance agents like Read and Bonnie Wallin of Koetje Agency Inc. certainly agree.

Wallin said homeowners should buy earthquake insurance “if they can’t or don’t want to handle the financial loss.”

“People on Whidbey Island should highly consider it,” Read said.

In order to procure earthquake insurance through Koetje Agency, a homeowner’s dwelling must meet code, Wallin said. In addition, the home’s water heater must be strapped down in two places.

Amber Reed at Steve Richardson Insurance Inc., however, said her office has written up policies for pre-1980s retrofitted homes at higher premiums.

In general, the cost of an earthquake insurance policy depends on several variables: the cost of the home, the slope of property and the deductible.

Marta Page, a Farmer’s Insurance agent, said her company performs a risk analysis that considers proximity to fault lines, type of soil, and seismic construction and foundation factors in addition to other variables above. Page said she wrote up a recent policy for a 1948 home that did not need retrofitting.

As an example of how the cost might break down, if a homeowner wanted to insure a $250,000 home with a 20 percent deductible, the cost of the policy would be about $240 a year, said Wallin. The cost to insure each $1,000 runs from about 95 cents to $3, she added.

“Earthquake insurance used to cost $30 a year,” Reed said. “Now it’s roughly $100 to $150 on its own (on average).”

Reed said that insurance companies tend to make earthquake insurance pay-outs only if significant damage is incurred, so buyers should read the small print closely.

“It has to be a substantial earthquake to be payed out; a catastrophic event,” Reed said.

The alarms Puget Sound seismologists have recently sounded are grounded in revealing and troubling geological data.

Two faults cross Whidbey

Two major fault zones cross Whidbey Island. The so-called Devils Mountain fault (DMF) nearly cuts off the tip of the island to the north, while the South Whidbey Island fault zone (SWIF) is about a 45 degree diagonal that runs from near Coupeville southeast to the Langley area.

Two recently-discovered fault lines, the Boulder Creek fault, close to the Canadian border, and the Lake Creek-Boundary Creek fault, which is located along the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Olympic National Park, may pose peripheral threats. Seismologists say both have the capacity to cause near 7.0 magnitude earthquakes.

Whidbey Island residents should be concerned with three source zones in particular.

The area of most concern is SWIF, a coastal fault deemed the most hazardous in western Washington by the U.S. Geological Survey. It could produce a magnitude 6.0 to 7.5 quake. Because the fault line is located relatively close to the surface, the shaking will be brief but intense. Although there’s only a seven percent chance of a SWIF earthquake occurring in the next 50 years, damage to improperly secured homes could be devastating.

Another major earthquake scenario involves the deep Cascadia Subduction Zone that could produce a five to six minute, magnitude 9.2 quake like the one in Sumatra, Indonesia, in 2004. These quakes occur about every 500 years. The last one struck in the 1700. Therefore, “we’re 300 years into the cycle,” Steele said. There is about a 10 percent chance that a Cascadia quake will hit the West Coast in the next 50 years.

The most likely earthquake to strike the region in the next 50 years is a deep Nisqually-type quake on the Juan de Fuca Plate. There is an 87 percent chance of this predicted 6.0 magnitude quake unleashing its power.

“There’s no reason we couldn’t have one under Whidbey Island,” Steele said. “However, they tend to cause a milder shake.”

Coastal resident Rosella Crouch did not want to risk experiencing that shake, so she purchased earthquake insurance four years ago.

“We read different articles that said they do expect one soon in Washington,” Crouch said. “We also live close to the beach and are concerned about a tsunami.” Crouch also has flood insurance.

Crouch said another consideration for buying earthquake insurance was because her home value shot up $80,000 in the last five years, a phenomenon undoubtedly witnessed by many other Whidbey waterfront homeowners.

“If you’re in an earthquake-prone area,” Crouch advised, “the policy will protect your house because there’ll be no way to replace it. We thought the price was not that bad.”

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