It has been five years since a devastating tsunami hit Indonesia on Dec. 26, 2004, killing more than 225,000 people. In the interim, the U.S. has significantly expanded its tsunami detection capabilities and broadened municipal awareness of this natural disaster. However, few consumers have the insurance coverage they need should a tsunami hit the U.S. mainland, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
Traditionally preceded by strong earthquakes, tsunamis send huge ocean waves hurtling toward coastal communities. Although relatively infrequent, Americans need look back no farther than September 2009 to find a tsunami that adversely impacted a U.S. territory. American Samoa, situated in the Pacific Ocean, was hit almost three months ago by a tsunami that caused 34 deaths. The disaster was triggered by an 8.0 magnitude earthquake centered about 120 miles south of the Samoan Islands.
More than 45 years earlier, in March 1964, a tsunami hit Crescent City, Calif., a town on the U.S. mainland near California’s border with Oregon.
The event caused 11 fatalities and had its origins in a major earthquake that struck Alaska, subsequently roiling waters of the Pacific Ocean off the West Coast. Unlike other natural disasters, such as hurricanes, there are no seasons or warnings for earthquakes. They can happen almost anywhere at anytime.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has bolstered its tsunami warning systems since the December 2004 Indonesian tragedy, increasing to 39 from six the number of tsunami detection stations it has installed worldwide, stretching from the western Pacific Ocean to the eastern Atlantic Ocean. Moreover, the number of U.S. communities NOAA recognizes through the National Weather Service’s TsunamiReady program has grown to 72 from 11 over the past five years. Sixty-two (62) of the 72 TsunamiReady communities are situated in 10 states: Alaska (7 communities), California (19; Crescent City is one of them), Florida (2), Georgia (1), Hawaii (4), North Carolina (5), Oregon (9), South Carolina (6), Virginia (1), and Washington (8). The others are in the U.S. territories of Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico.
To be recognized as TsunamiReady, a community must have established a 24-hour warning point and emergency operations center; have more than one way to receive tsunami warnings and alert the public; promote public readiness through community education; and develop a formal tsunami plan, which includes holding emergency exercises. All Pacific coastal states have developed state mitigation plans that include addressing the tsunami hazard.
Earthquakes and Insurance
Earthquakes are not covered under standard homeowners or business insurance policies. Coverage is usually available for earthquake damage in the form of a supplemental policy to a home or business policy. Standard homeowners and business insurance policies may, however, cover losses from a fire following an earthquake, which would include additional living expenses and business interruption coverage. Cars and other vehicles are covered for earthquake damage under the optional comprehensive portion of an auto insurance policy.
In California, homeowners can also secure property coverage from the California Earthquake Authority (CEA), a privately funded, publicly managed organization. Californians are able to buy CEA coverage through the company that provides their homeowners insurance coverage provided it is a CEA-participating insurance company. Nevertheless, only 12 percent of California homeowners have earthquake coverage, down from about 30 percent more than a decade ago.
Earthquake insurance policies often carry a deductible, generally in the form of a percentage rather than a flat dollar amount. The CEA, for instance, offers homeowners dwelling coverage deductibles of either 10 or 15 percent. The CEA coverage limit is the insured value of the home as stated on the companion homeowners insurance policy.
Tsunamis and Insurance
Flood damage is not covered under most standard homeowners insurance policies. Tsunamis cause flood damage and are therefore only covered by a flood policy. Flood policies are available from the federal government’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), and some private insurance companies, and can generally be purchased from the same agents and brokers who provide homeowners and renters insurance. Additional information on flood insurance can be found by going to the FloodSmart.gov Web site or calling 888-379-9531. For coverage over and above the $250,000 for property and $100,000 for contents provided by the NFIP, excess flood insurance is also available from private insurance companies.
The NFIP had 5.65 million flood policies in-force nationwide as of 2007, a 14 percent increase over the number of NFIP policies in-force in 2005 (4.96 million), according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The I.I.I. recommends that everyone, no matter where they live, contact their agent or company representative to make sure that they have the right type and amount of insurance; an up-to-date home inventory; an evacuation plan; and have taken reasonable steps to protect their home from the disasters that pose a risk to their property and personal safety.