When it comes to living in Southern California, earthquakes are a part of life. Thankfully, in my thirty years of homeownership here, and despite several very large temblors, including a couple of 7.0 shakers, I’ve never had to worry about any resulting damage beyond minor cracks to interior walls and exterior stucco and hardscape. The main reason for that is because, unlike brick buildings, wood frame homes that make up the vast majority of Southern California residences are extremely flexible structures. As a result, they’re usually able to withstand the shaking that all but the most catastrophic earthquakes can dish out.
That’s not to say that during a major temblor lots of pictures can’t fall off the walls, cupboards won’t be emptied of their contents, and windows won’t crack or break — but the odds of a wood-frame house being turned into a terrifying heap of splintered lumber and shattered glass are long.
Earthquakes Can Happen Almost Anywhere
Of course, earthquakes in America aren’t limited to California; they’re common up and down the entire Pacific Coast.
There have been some significant temblors east of the Rockies too.
In 2011 an earthquake registering 5.6 hit central Oklahoma. More notably, between 1811 and 1812, four major earthquakes of magnitude 7.0 or greater struck the region surrounding New Madrid, Missouri. The shocks were so powerful that they were felt as far away as Ohio and Virginia.
The East Coast gets them too. Believe it or not, just last month New England was struck by at least 10 earthquakes — although none of them were as large as the magnitude 5.8 shaker that struck Mineral, Virginia in 2011.
In 1886 a magnitude 7.3 quake struck Charleston, South Carolina. And Cape Ann, Massachusetts, experienced a strong temblor measuring 6.0 in 1755.
Other significant modern-day earthquakes in the eastern US measuring over 5.0 have struck Plattsburgh, New York, in 2002 and Pymatuning, Pennsylvania, in 1998.
The Pros and Cons of Earthquake Insurance
The reason I bring this up is because my homeowners insurance policy needs to be renewed; the basic premium is approximately $1100. As part of the process, the insurance company is also offering me the opportunity to buy earthquake insurance for an additional premium of $839.
So, is earthquake insurance worth it? That’s hard to say because there are so many variables to consider, and earthquake insurance policies and rules vary on a state-by-state basis.
In my case, the earthquake insurance policy being offered by the California Earthquake Authority would cover $304,638 to rebuild my home. Unfortunately, there is a 15% deductible on the structure’s replacement cost, which means the first $45,695 in damages will come out of my pocket before I see a penny from the insurance company.
Here’s the rub: Short of my home being completely destroyed, it’s fairly unlikely I’d encounter damages far above the policy’s large deductible. That hunch is backed up by the fact that total loss claims from earthquakes are rare; California’s two biggest temblors — the 1989 Loma Prieta quake and the 1994 Northridge quake — prove this out. Roughly 45,000 claims were submitted after the Loma Pieta quake, and the average inflation-adjusted value was $26,000. Meanwhile, the Northridge quake generated 195,000 claims with an average value of $59,000 in 2018 dollars.
If my home was older, or built of brick or masonry construction, I would probably err on the side of caution and buy the earthquake insurance; but it’s not. I have a relatively new 20-year old wood-frame home that’s bolted to the foundation and constructed to modern earthquake-resistant standards.
That’s why, after carefully weighing all the risks, I’ve decided to take my chances and decline the earthquake insurance. For me, the potential benefits simply don’t justify the cost of the coverage.
Photo Credit: California Watch