Is your home prepared for an earthquake?

The massive earthquake in Japan has sent aftershocks of anxiety all over the world. Many Americans may imagine they’re not at risk for an earthquake if they don’t live in California, but the reality is that earthquake fault lines are located all over the country.

The good news is there are many steps American homeowners can take now – ahead of a quake – to increase their odds of surviving the "Big One" with their property intact, or at least the resources to rebuild. There are two primary avenues of earthquake preparedness: You can investigate purchasing earthquake insurance if you don’t already have it, and you can take steps to identify and eliminate earthquake dangers in your home.

Challenges of earthquake insurance

If you try to buy earthquake insurance right after a major quake – particularly one in your region – don’t be surprised if you find it hard to get a policy, says Glenn Pomeroy, CEO of the California Earthquake Authority, a nonprofit agency that runs the state's earthquake insurance program.

The California Earthquake Authority was formed following the state's devastating Northridge earthquake of 2005.

After that disaster, insurers drastically reduced the number of earthquake riders they were willing to add to homeowner's insurance policies in California. California requires insurers to offer earthquake coverage to homeowners they insure, so home insurance quickly became tough to get as well. The problem was resolved with creation of the Earthquake Authority, which has $10 billion in assets. Now, most insurers in California refer homeowners to the nonprofit agency to obtain separate earthquake coverage.

home insurance earthquake preparedness

California is the only state that requires earthquake insurance to be offered, so if you live elsewhere, it may be a hassle, Pomeroy says. Standard homeowner's policies do not provide earthquake coverage.

If you can find earthquake coverage, rates may be prohibitively high. Pomeroy reports that with an average California home valued at $400,000 or so, an earthquake rider there typically costs about $800 a year.

While California requires that earthquake insurance be offered, most Californians don't take advantage of it. Only about 12 percent of the state's homeowners carry quake insurance.

California isn’t the only state where quake insurance isn't prevalent.

In February, John Huff, director of the Missouri Department of Insurance, warned the number of homeowners in the Show-Me State with earthquake coverage had sunk dramatically -- a trend attributed to the economic slump and rising insurance rates. For instance, figures released by the state showed the number of homeowners with earthquake insurance in St. Louis County had plunged from 73 percent in 2002 to 17 percent in 2009.

If you can get earthquake insurance, you should, Pomeroy says. It’s a myth that in a big disaster, such as an earthquake, that homeowners can turn to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for help. Federal aid often is slow to arrive and comes mostly in the form of low-interest loans, not cash handouts.

“People who have insurance recover; people who don’t stand in FEMA lines and wait," Pomeroy says.

Making your home earthquake-safe

Even if you can get insurance, it pays to do everything you can to bring your home through a quake with as little damage as possible. Here are five tips from the California Earthquake Authority and the California Seismic Safety Commission on ways to prepare your home for an earthquake:

1. Secure your water heater. This is one of the most cost-effective safety measures you can take – a kit costs about $40 at hardware stores, says Richard McCarthy, director of the Seismic Safety Commission. Water heaters that break free are a major cause of gas-line ruptures and fires.

2. Bolt tall furniture to the wall. This is another cheap repair – in this case, one that can help avoid injuries.

3. Secure your foundation. Improperly secured home foundations are one of the biggest causes of home damage during a quake. If you have a wood-frame home that sits atop unbolted pier pilings or a concrete sill, get your home bolted down. McCarthy says this typically costs about $1,500 and can keep your home from shifting off its foundation. If your foundation includes a small “cripple wall” between the floor and foundation that helps create a crawl space, make sure it's braced with sturdy plywood to prevent sideways motion. Foundations of un-reinforced stone or masonry as well as old foundations with crumbling concrete may need major work to make them earthquake-safe.

4. Strengthen your garage. A home built over a garage tends to experience severe quake damage, McCarthy says, as the large door opening creates a structural weakness. Reinforce the garage opening with a steel frame to secure the building.

5. Get your family ready. Conduct a disaster drill and know where family members will meet in case of a quake. Family members should know where water and gas shutoff valves are and how to use them. Make sure everyone knows the safest places in the house to take shelter during a quake. Stockpile enough food and water for several days in case roads and stores are closed.

With simple upgrades such as strapping water heaters and securing bookcases, handy homeowners should be able to do the work themselves. Any foundation work should be done by a professional. McCarthy recommends asking your city’s planning department or your state's licensing board for referrals to building contractors who have expertise in earthquake preparedness.

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