By Carmel Fisher
15 September, 2017
While admiring the variety of architecture in San Francisco last week, I was reminded of the 1906 earthquake that leveled the city destroying approximately 25,000 buildings on 490 city blocks.
As damaging as the earthquake was, the subsequent fires that burned out of control caused most of the destruction in what was one of America’s most significant natural disasters.
Though commonly known as the San Francisco earthquake, its impact stretched across California with an estimated death toll of over 3000.
Insurance companies settled approximately 100,000 claims and at least 12 American insurers went bankrupt, as did several from Europe.
The amount paid out in claims was roughly 100 times the premiums paid for insurance policies that year, with the earthquake losses wiping out the insurance industry profits earned over the previous five decades.
While over 100 years ago, the devastation of the 1906 quake was so significant you’d think earthquake risk would be top of mind for Californians and they’d be insured to the hilt.
In spite of the inevitability of a severe earthquake (scientists predict a 60 percent chance of a strong quake within the next 30 years) few Californians buy earthquake insurance.
According to researcher Risk Management Solutions, the number of earthquake insurance policies in California has dropped to just 10 percent of homes, down from 34 percent in 1994.
Californians are not alone in their ‘under-insuredness’.
Even before Hurricane Harvey triggered massive flooding in Houston, American lawmakers were considering ways to encourage more home-owners to take on flood insurance.
Only two out of 10 homeowners in Harvey’s path have flood insurance according to experts. This compares with about half of flooded homes that were covered by flood insurance during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
As for Hurricane Irma, the storm is already breaking records and is set to rival Hurricane Allen (1980) as the strongest hurricane to make landfall. It could prove to be the most costly storm in US history with some estimating total claims of more than US$250 billion.
More than one million homes at risk of storm damage in Florida are not covered by flood insurance. Across Florida’s coastal counties, just 42 percent of homes are covered.
It’s not just homes that need to be insured. Natural disasters such as Harvey, Irma and the San Francisco earthquake destroy houses, businesses and cars not to mention the lives of many families.
Researchers attribute the low insurance take-up to new homeowners who haven’t experienced a natural disaster and don’t consider insurance a high priority in their household budgets.
Other homeowners are put off by the steady increase in the cost of insurance and the uncertainty over whether claims will be successful.
That’s the thing about insurance. You can pay what seems an exorbitant amount, year after year, and see no value.
Sure, your home is protected, but the value of peace of mind fades over time, and it’s easy to succumb to the “it won’t happen to me” mindset. Then there’s the question of whether you’ll be properly covered or whether the fine print will let you down when you most need it.
But as recent disasters illustrate, any insurance is better than nothing. Images of the devastation wreaked by Irma and Harvey should shake us all out of our complacency. Now is the time to dust off your insurance policy and check what you are covered for.
And if you don’t have insurance, get on to it now while the sun is shining and the earth is still.