Renters at risk: In San Francisco, few have quake insurance


SAN FRANCISCO – If you’re in the Bay Area for the next 30 years, there’s a nearly 75 percent chance you’ll experience a large earthquake – as big as the 1994 Northridge quake, or bigger.

That’s taking into account all the faults in the Bay Area that are likely to produce earthquakes, according to geologist Keith Knudsen, the deputy director of the Earthquake Science Center of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
The USGS is developing an earthquake early warning system, the ShakeAlert, a network of sensors that can send out information about earthquake waves so people can be warned before the shaking gets to them.

With ShakeAlert, a variety of actions will be possible that can mitigate damage. “Trains can be slowed down, facilities that contain hazardous materials can be stabilized, expensive equipment can be turned off, elevators can be stopped at floors rather than between floors,” says Knudsen. “The dentist can remove that drill from your mouth.”
USGS hopes for the system to be up and running throughout California in about three years.
That said, most of the Bay Area’s risk is in its buildings. And many residents aren’t protecting themselves financially.

Currently, if your house falls down or is seriously damaged and you don’t have earthquake insurance, the federal government has a message for you: good luck.
“People think the government will bail them out,” says Chris Nance, the chief communications officer of the California Earthquake Authority (CEA). It will not. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will give grants for safety and sanitation needs, but they’re not very large – after the 2014 Napa quake, the average size of one of these grants was about $3,500, according to Nance. FEMA will issue loans for reconstruction, but they’re just that – loans – and they aren’t large enough to cover the typical cost of reconstruction in the Bay Area.

CEA is a not-for-profit organization created by the state that offers earthquake insurance policies. You don’t access the insurance policy directly through the CEA – rather, it’s through your residential insurance company. The majority of companies offering homeowners’ insurance in California offer the CEA policies.
Most renters don’t realize that it’s a good idea for them to have a policy as well; for renters, the policies cover things like personal property and living expenses.
“In a city like San Francisco, where you have two-thirds of the population renting, just 2 percent have earthquake insurance,” says Nance. The policy for renters, he says, starts at about $35.

For property owners, the cost is significantly more, though prices have come down from where they were twenty years ago. It depends on the property – older homes are more expensive to insure because of the higher potential for damage – but seismic retrofitting can bring the price down. Additionally, homeowners don’t have to pay the deductible before getting the insurance payout – that amount is just deducted from the claim payment.
The Earthquake Brace + Bolt (EBB) is a project of the state’s Residential Mitigation Program, created by the CEA and the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. Homeowners who qualify for the EBB program can receive payments of up to $3,000 for retrofitting expenses.
Homes that qualify are in certain zip codes, and they need to be the type of home where the retrofit is achieved by bolting the house to its foundation and installing a bracing system around the home’s crawl space (a common construction in older homes). For more information about properties that qualify, visit The website also has information for do-it-yourself types. (NAM)