It’s been said a number of times and in a number of places recently that a massive earthquake could hit the Pacific Northwest at any moment thanks to the pressure that’s slowly but surely building along an offshore fault line known as the Cascadia subduction zone.
Granted, the moment in question could happen later today, sometime tomorrow, two months down the road, or even 200 years or more in the future.
Still, the pundits and reporters chiefly responsible for spreading the word about this imminent (or not) threat are scaring a lot of people who currently call the region home. That sort of reaction is understandable, of course, when you consider many of these warnings and proclamations have centered on information similar to the following morsel, which was showcased in Kathryn Schulz’s New Yorker write-up published in late July:
“The area of impact will cover some hundred and forty thousand square miles, including Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Eugene, Salem (the capital city of Oregon), Olympia (the capital of Washington), and some seven million people,” Schulz wrote. “When the next full-margin rupture happens, that region will suffer the worst natural disaster in the history of North America.”
How Likely is a Pacific Northwest Earthquake, Really?
So, how likely is one of these “full-margin ruptures”? That’s not the easiest question to answer, unfortunately. What can be said is scientists now know that the Cascadia subduction zone has a recurrence interval of 243 years—which means it produces an earthquake every 243 years or so.
That’s worth noting because the last quake it produced hit the Pacific Northwest all the way back in 1700—or 315 years ago. In other words, we’re about 70 years overdue for another.
Or are we? Most experts will demur when asked, largely due to the fact that earthquake recurrence intervals are averages. In fact, Ian Madin, chief scientist at Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries (DOGAMI), told Schulz in a follow-up to her initial New Yorker article that “you’re not overdue for an earthquake until you’re three standard deviations beyond the mean”—which translates to approximately 800 years from now, if you’re worried about the worst possible result of a rupture that occurs along the entire length of the Cascadia fault.
“That doesn’t mean that the quake won’t happen tomorrow; it just means we are not ‘overdue’ in any meaningful sense,” Schulz herself says in the aforementioned article.
For his part, John Vidale, Ph.D., a professor of seismology and tectonics at the University of Washington and the director of the Pacific NW Seismic Network, puts the likelihood of a “serious coastal earthquake” at about “one in six in the next 50 years—perhaps twice as high along northernmost California and southern Oregon.”
As dire as that may sound, Vidale reminds that “earthquakes are just one of many risks” that those who choose to live and work in Seattle or Portland or many other Washington and Oregon towns and cities have to consider on any given day.
“The risk of any one person being killed by an earthquake are low,” he stresses, adding that the impact of an extensive Cascadia rupture “is more likely [to be] economic than physical, as a bad earthquake could sink the Pacific Northwest economy into doldrums for years.”
What All of This Means for Homeowners in the PNW
A massive, Pacific Northwest-centered quake also could sink a multitude of homeowners in the region.
The reason: like most of their fellow Americans, very few people in Washington, Oregon, or California--the states mostly likely to take the brunt of a sizeable Cascadia tremblor—are protected by earthquake insurance.
Specifically, Washington State Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler estimates that no more than 15 percent of his state’s homeowners currently have some amount of earthquake coverage, while his counterparts to the south claim that about 20 percent of Oregon residents have it. (As for California, various sources put the number of that state’s citizens who have quake insurance at just 12 percent.)
Why Homeowners Tend to Ignore Quake Coverage
Why do so many Pacific Northwesterners—or Americans in general, to be honest—decide to pass on this type of insurance?
For starters, Kreidler posits that “insurance is one of those things, like a will, that people don’t want to think about unless they have to.” Plus, he says, “it’s unpleasant and can be overwhelming to think about something like a devastating earthquake.”
Another distinct possibility, according to Kreidler, is that a good number of homeowners and renters in the region simply think earthquake coverage is too expensive.
“Most people don’t want to pay the additional premium,” agrees Shane Secord, owner of Seattle’s Secord Insurance Agency, who points out that adding earthquake coverage “usually doubles the insurance rate” a homeowner has to pay.
The sky-high deductibles—which can be as low as 2 percent of a home’s value but more typically comes to 10, 15, or even 25 percent of that amount--that often are associated with earthquake insurance are sure to be even more of a turn off for those who contemplate adding this type of coverage to their portfolios.
So, if it would cost you $268,000—which is the median home price in Washington at the moment—to replace or repair your home, it would have to incur $26,800, $40,200, or $67,000 in damage, depending on whether your deductible is 10, 15, or 25 percent—which you would have to pay for out of your own pocket—before your earthquake policy could kick in and help out with the rest.
“While that is a lot of money, would you rather pay your insurance company a $67,000 deductible to rebuild your home, or repay the federal government $300,000 to rebuild your home? That’s something people need to consider,” Kreidler suggests.
And then there are the folks who Kreidler says “haven’t even thought about earthquake insurance,” in large part due to the fact that they “assume it’s covered as part of their homeowner’s policy because they haven’t read the policy closely enough to know what is and is not covered.”
(Not-so-fun fact: earthquake protection rarely, if ever, is addressed by standard homeowners coverage and usually is sold separately or as an endorsement that can be added to an existing policy.)
Last, but not least, a not-insignificant portion of the population seems to believe that the federal government will lend a helping hand—either in the form of grants or loans—should a massive tremor pummel the Pacific Northwest and ignore earthquake insurance as a result.
Those homeowners, Kreidler says, “should be aware that the federal government will offer loans to help [them] rebuild, but they need to be repaid.” Which, he adds, begs the question: are you prepared to pay back your mortgage as well as one of these low-interest, Small Business Association-backed loans?
What Else You Need to Know about Earthquake Insurance
If not, adding earthquake coverage to your homeowners or renters insurance policy could pay off in more ways than one—as long as you’re as informed as possible and in the right mindset when you go to fill out the required paperwork.
In regard to the latter, Kreidler reiterates that the point of this kind of protection is that it’s supposed to “provide coverage if your home is damaged or destroyed by an earthquake.”
Adds Secord: “this is catastrophic coverage meant to cover [you] in the event of a major earthquake.”
In other words, you shouldn’t invest in it thinking you’ll make use of it if a relatively minor tremor rocks the region and only minimally impacts your home as a result.
With that out of the way, here are a few additional nuggets of information you should be aware of before you agree to sign on the dotted line for some kind or amount of quake coverage:
A lot of factors determine how much you pay for this kind of insurance
First, it’s quite possible you’ll be quoted separate deductibles for the contents of your home, its actual structure, and any of the constructions that surround it (like garages and sheds). As a result, the amount of coverage you need and want in each of those areas will impact your premium in various ways.
Also, the cost of your policy is likely to vary depending on where your home is located, what type of building it is (wood-frame houses are cheaper to insure than brick ones because they hold up better during an earthquake), and how old it is.
The company you choose to go with for earthquake coverage probably will impact what you pay for it, too, as premiums often differ from one provider to the next. So, shop around, get quotes from a number of insurers, and then carefully weigh all of the options in front of you before making a choice.
Earthquake coverage won’t protect you from everything
Although this kind of product covers a lot of perils that either accompany quakes or are at least somewhat associated with them—such as mudslides, landslides, and land “settlement”—it doesn’t tend to cover damage caused by floods, tidal waves, or tsunamis.
That’s problematic, as it’s not out of the question for any of those three phenomena to follow in the wake of a tremblor. “People who want coverage for those events should contact the National Flood Insurance Program,” Kreidler advises.
Renovations are sometimes required before you can qualify for quake insurance
In most cases, this will mean that the insurance company will want to see proof that your home has been bolted to its foundation before it will extend this sort of endorsement or policy to you.
Although that can be pricey—and cost you anywhere from $2,000 to $6,000, depending on where you live as well as the size and style of your humble abode—Secord recommends that Pacific Northwesterners “consider this option as a first line of defense, if their home is built prior to 1980.”
A couple of other requirements that sometimes are tied to your ability to obtain earthquake coverage: a property inspection, and evidence that you’ve properly secured certain fixtures, like hot-water heaters, using strapping guards.
Renters can benefit from this kind of coverage too
As has been stated a few times already, renters and condo owners who want to protect their possessions and other investments (such as the structure of their building, in the case of the latter group) from earthquake-related damage and destruction often can do so, too, by purchasing endorsements or standalone policies.
Some carriers don’t offer this type of coverage, unfortunately, “but if you can get it, and you have a significant investment in your things, it is a good idea to have it,” Secord says, especially since it’s likely to be inexpensive.
If you don’t buy now, you may not be able to do so in the future
That’s because, as Secord shares, “there is always a moratorium [placed] on this coverage for 30 days after a minor quake.”
In layman’s terms, that means that once even a small earthquake strikes, insurance companies will stop selling these endorsements until at least a month has passed.
Also, when they begin selling them again—which is far from a given, as Secord points out that after the Nisqually quake that was centered on Anderson Island, Washington, in 2001, “many carriers decided to get out of the earthquake business”—they may be harder to come by and cost quite a bit more than they did before.
Take Steps to be Protected
Still on the fence as to whether or not earthquake insurance is right for you and your current living situation?
Kreidler, for one, suggests you sit down with, or pick up the phone and call, a couple of in-the-know agents or brokers to find out what your options are when it comes to this kind of product.
“Even if [you] make the choice to forego coverage,” he says, “it should be based on a well-informed decision rather than a lack of awareness of what you are covered for.”