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Rubble With a Mortgage 

What could be worse than a devasting earthquake in the Bay Area? The day after, when we all realize that no one is covered by insurance.

Wednesday, Aug 1 2001
If it's a high 8 or a 9, there's nothing to plan for, because everything will crumble and we might as well have fallen into the sea. Fortunately, it probably won't be a 9. It could be an 8. If it's a low 8 or so, like the recent quake in Peru, it's survivable, but most everyone will sleep outside that night, because we will all be scared of our homes, or of what might be left of them. It probably won't be an 8 either, though. It's more likely to be somewhere in the 7s, maybe the high 6s if we're lucky. This is not a good prognosis either, as earthquakes go. Seven is still a disaster.

Chunks of the Bay Bridge are likely to be knocked out in a strong quake, even with the new retrofits. The west span is being retrofitted to withstand an 8.3, but the east span will be as brittle as ever. Until an entirely new east span is built, which won't happen soon, anything like a nearby 6 or 7 could pancake the upper sections onto the lower ones. If it's rush hour -- the 1989 Loma Prieta quake occurred at 5:04 p.m. -- hundreds or even thousands of people could be trapped and crushed, horribly.

Even if the bridge doesn't go down, parts of the transportation system could fail: Roads could buckle, and approaches and on-ramps to the bridges could crack, even if the spans themselves hold.

In the East Bay, six elementary schools literally sit on top of the Hayward fault, and panicking parents will begin streaming up the Berkeley hills, dodging the downed power lines, wondering who the hell's idea it was to build a school above the epicenter of an earthquake zone. As many as 20,000 people across the Bay Area will be hurt in a 7, according to scenarios drawn up by Oakland's Earthquake Engineering Research Institute; unfortunately, there will only be 10,000 hospital beds.

If you live in a building with what is called a "soft first story," meaning one of those blocky apartments built on stilts with a parking bay below, you run a slightly higher risk of damage, and will hopefully not be at home in a 7.

A slip on the Hayward fault in the 7.0 range could cause $100 billion in physical damage and loss of economic activity, according to the Governor's Office of Emergency Services.

And yet, the vast majority of us will come out of it healthy. If you do all the smart things, say the predictions -- don't sleep under a hanging mirror or put the baby crib next to a bookshelf -- you will probably avoid physical injury, as will your friends and family. So don't panic about your health.

Your house and your checkbook are a different matter entirely. Particularly if you own your home.

A study by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) predicts 150,000 homes will be rendered uninhabitable after a magnitude 7.3 earthquake along the Hayward fault in the East Bay, the fault geologists consider most likely to produce a high-magnitude shake sometime in the next 30 years. One out of seven dwellings will be uninhabitable over the entire Bay Area, the report says, with the worst losses in Alameda County, where 40 percent of multifamily housing will become uninhabitable. Regionwide, an estimated 370,000 people will be displaced from their homes, about 100,000 of whom are expected to have nowhere else to go and to need emergency shelter. San Francisco and Alameda counties are expected to generate over 80 percent of the emergency shelter population after a major local quake, with the situation less dire in San Mateo, Contra Costa, and Marin counties.

If the quake comes nearer San Francisco on the San Andreas, the other fault considered likely to wreak havoc, the region could lose a more modest, but still considerable, 45,000 homes, of which 42 percent, or about 19,000, will be in San Francisco, according to ABAG's planning.

Three months ago, earthquake experts at a meeting of the Seismological Society of America in San Francisco were told that the Bay Area "is likely to experience potentially damaging earthquakes in the next four to nine years," according to a study by the California Department of Conservation's Division of Mines and Geology.

"There has been a distinctive pattern associated with the four major earthquakes in the Bay Area since 1800. That pattern indicates the possibility of increased activity 15-20 years after the magnitude 7.0 Loma Prieta earthquake," said the report. Loma Prieta was 12 years ago, and while the state report cautions that it is not making a prediction, the strong implication is, something's coming.

But for all the earthquake studies and preparedness and retrofitting, one crisis is not being planned for: the financial disaster that will surely follow a major quake. When the fires are mostly out and the aftershocks have started coming at wider intervals, people will start calling their insurance companies. Assuming they can get through, that's when the real shudder will hit. The vast majority of homeowners in the Bay Area, and most of the renters, will suddenly realize that for all their damage -- their crushed homes, their lost belongings -- they will be reimbursed not one thin dime. Because California's system of earthquake insurance is seriously broken, and no one seems to be able or willing to fix it, despite the near certainty of a quake coming hard, and soon.

Insuring a house would seem like a simple thing to do, and earthquakes would seem like the obvious thing to insure yourself against in the Bay Area. That this isn't possible is the result of several failures, both in state disaster policy and in the underlying economics of the insurance industry. Here's the basic problem:

- Comprehensive earthquake insurance is virtually unavailable in California. It is almost impossible to buy a policy that will cover the loss of both your home and your personal possessions in an earthquake.

About The Author

Marc Herman


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