A series of powerful earthquakes and aftershocks rocked Chile earlier this month, triggering tsunami warnings around the eastern Pacific Rim. A week later, the Los Angeles suburb of Sherwood was rattled by a magnitude 3.3. Are earthquakes on the increase? Is the Big One on the way? Experts answer no to both questions, as they always do when a spate of temblors occur in rapid succession. What has increased, says the U.S. Geological Survey, is the number of earthquakes we’re able to locate. According to USGS, “This is because of the tremendous increase in the number of seismograph stations in the world and the many improvements in global communications.” There are now more than 8,000 stations worldwide feeding real-time earthquake data via email, Internet and satellite. The National Earthquake Information Center, a division within USGS, locates about 20,000 quakes a year. That’s about 50 a day. Long-term records, kept since about 1900, indicate we can anticipate about 17 major quakes (7.0 – 7.9) and one really big one (8.0) in any given year.
As good as earthquake locating and reporting technology has become, the ability to actually predict an earthquake is still in the Dark Ages. In fact, a consensus of reputable seismologists say it simply isn’t possible with a sufficient degree of reliability and accuracy to justify the cost.
So, if earthquakes happen – a lot – and they can’t be predicted, what are the chances you’ll be affected by one and how can you prepare for it?
Everybody Lives in Earthquake Country
The popular belief is that California is the earthquake capital of America. Not necessarily. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) says earthquakes can and do happen in all 50 states and 90% of us live in areas that have quakes. “California has the most frequent damaging earthquakes while Alaska has the largest earthquakes,” according to NAIC. “Most earthquakes are west of the Rocky Mountains, but some of the most violent earthquakes have been in the central U.S.”
In addition to California’s famous San Andreas Fault, they’re five other U.S. earthquake hot spots:
- The Cascadia Subduction Zone – a 680-mile stretch off the coast of Oregon, Washington and southern British Columbia is capable of causing magnitude 9 quakes, 30 times more powerful than the worst San Andreas can cause.
- New Madrid – located in Missouri, this zone has caused magnitude 7.5 to 8 quakes, some of the largest on record in the U.S.
- Salt Lake City – The 240-mile Wasatch Fault running right under Utah’s capital is one of the world’s longest faults and could deliver magnitude 7.5 quakes.
- Alaska – the second largest quake on record – a magnitude 9.2 monster – hit here in 1964 when two tectonic plates collided.
- Hawaii – The same forces that trigger volcanic action make the islands susceptible to quakes like the magnitude 7.9 shaker in 1868.
The point? If you’re sitting in Des Moines thinking you’re safe from a quake, you may want to think again and read on.
The Potential Damage
Your chances of being killed by the actual movement of the earth are slim. NAIC says quakes almost never kill directly. Most deaths and injuries result from falling objects and collapsing structures, fires caused by broken gas and power lines, spilled hazardous chemicals, and tsunamis resulting from the quake. Flooding and landslides can also result if shifting earth loosens soil on sloping ground or breaks down the banks along a body of water. Property damage is far more likely as fault slippage and ground shaking can cause structures to sway, bounce and slide or collapse. Even minor quakes can crack walls and foundations.
What to Do Before and During a Quake
The American Red Cross offers the following tips to prepare for an earthquake:
- Know the fire evacuation and earthquake safety plan for all buildings you occupy regularly
- Pick safe places in your home, workplace or school – usually under a solid piece of furniture or next to an interior wall, away from windows or furniture that could fall on you (don’t go outside, where trees, power lines or buildings could fall on you)
- Have drop, cover and hold-on drills with family members and coworkers
- Keep a flashlight and sturdy shoes by your bedside
- Bolt and brace water heaters, gas appliances, bookcases and other heavy furniture to wall studs
- Don’t hang heavy items over beds or places where people sit
- Know how to shut off gas valves and keep a wrench close by
- Keep an emergency kit with water, first aid items and other essentials in a convenient location
QuakeHold adds these tips if you’re outdoors or on the road when a quake happens:
- Move to a clear area, away from power lines, trees, signs, buildings and other hazards
- If you’re at the beach and the shaking lasts longer than 20 seconds, walk quickly inland to high ground as soon as possible
- Pull over to the side of the road, away from overpasses, signs and power lines, set the parking brake and stay in your vehicle until the shaking stops
Do You Need Earthquake Coverage?
Standard homeowners insurance and renters insurance do not cover earthquake damage. Earthquake insurance must be purchased as a separate policy or an endorsement to your existing coverage. In general, earthquake insurance will pay for damages to your home, personal property and any unattached structures that are covered by your policy. It will also pay to remove resulting debris and living expenses while your home is repaired. Depending on your coverage, it may also pay the increased costs to meet current codes and to stabilize the land under your home, according to the NAIC’s “A Consumer’s Guide to Earthquake Insurance.” Earthquake insurance for renters will only cover loss or damage to personal property. Your landlord is responsible for structural damage.
Earthquake insurance exclusions will vary depending on which carrier you buy your policy from, but NAIC says common exclusions include:
- Fire – since this is already covered by your homeowners insurance
- Land – sinkholes, large cracks in your landscaping and similar land damage aren’t usually covered unless your policy includes Engineering Costs coverage
- Vehicles – Even if your car was in your garage, this type of damage coverage falls under
- Your auto insurance policy
- Pre-existing damage – if it was there before the tremor, it isn’t covered
- External water damage – Sewer or drain backup or resulting floods are not covered by earthquake insurance; you’ll need flood insurance for that
 “Are Earthquakes Really on the Increase?” http://earthquake.usgs.gov/learn/topics/increase_in_earthquakes.php
 Geller, Jackson, Kagan, Mulargia, “Enhanced: Earthquake Cannot Be Predicted,” http://scec.ess.ucla.edu/~ykagan/perspective.html
 “Consumers Guide to Earthquake Insurance,” http://www.naic.org/documents/consumer_guide_earthquake.pdf
 “EarthquakePreparedness,” http://www.redcross.org/prepare/disaster/earthquake