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Does my home insurance policy cover a tsunami?

Tsunamis may be more associated with countries like Japan and Thailand, but they can -- and do -- happen in the United States.

Since the United States has more coastline than any other country and has several earthquake fault lines, the Pacific, Atlanta, Gulf and Caribbean coasts of this country are vulnerable to tsunamis, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

That means millions of Americans are in the path of a potentially destructive tsunami. In 1960, for instance, an earthquake in Chile triggered a 35-foot tsunami in Hilo, Hawaii, that killed 61 people. In the past 150 years, deadly tsunamis have struck Hawaii as well as Alaska, California, Oregon, Washington, American Samoa, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to NOAA.

It's worth pointing out that much of the damage from the March 2011 disaster in Japan was created by the tsunami, not by the earthquake or aftershocks.

home insurance tsunami

Given the potential danger, it's wise not to ignore the threat of a tsunami in the United States. Here are five things homeowners need to know about protecting their property in case of damage from a tsunami and subsequent flooding:

1. There is no such thing as “tsunami insurance.” The damage caused by a tsunami results from several factors, and each may be covered by a separate insurance policy. A tsunami is brought out by an earthquake deep beneath the ocean’s floor, which can result in huge, powerful waves that push far beyond the shores and produce consider damage.

2. A standard homeowner’s insurance policy does not cover tsunami-related flooding (or earthquake damage, for that matter). However, homeowners who live in flood zones and who have mortgages backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac are required to obtain flood insurance.

3. In the United States, nearly all flood insurance is provided only by the federal government, through the National Flood Insurance Program. This program is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA). A 2010 poll by the Insurance Information Institute found that 10 percent of Americans had flood insurance.

Most insurance agents can help homeowners obtain flood insurance. It’s important to note that the National Flood Insurance Program caps flood structural damage at $250,000 – barely enough to cover the value of a home in most U.S. coastal areas -- and damage to possessions at $100,000. Additional coverage through so-called “umbrella” policies is scarce and pricey.

A handful of insurance companies write private policies for wealthy homeowners, but those policies can be extraordinarily expensive, says Eli Lehrer, vice president of The Heartland Institute in Washington, D.C.

4. It’s too late to buy flood insurance once warnings of an impending tsunami or other flooding event are issued. Unlike traditional property damage or even auto insurance, you can't buy a flood insurance policy that protects you immediately, says Pete Moraga, a spokesman for the Insurance Information Network of California. It takes 30 days for a flood insurance policy to go into effect.

5. The federal government won't pay for the costs of damage from tsunamis or floods or bail out uninsured property owners. However, FEMA and the Small Business Administration do offer low-interest loans to people in areas where a federal disaster has been declared.

Here are some of the warning signs of a tsunami, according to NOAA:

• An earthquake near the coast lasting at least 20 seconds.

• A rapid rise or fall in coastal waters.

• A loud, roaring sound (like an airplane or a train) from the ocean.

The National Weather Service operates two tsunami warning centers: one in Alaska and the other in Hawaii. According to NOAA, 83 U.S. coastal communities have earned the government's "TsunamiReady" designation, mostly in Alaska, California, Oregon and Washington.

The deadly 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami (which hit Thailand and other countries) prompted a $150 million investment in expanding U.S. tsunami detection and warning capabilities, outreach, education and research. “Efficient warning systems and awareness in coastal communities are vital to protecting Americans in at-risk areas of the country," President Obama says.

--Robert F. Dixon and

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