In various news articles and blogs, I keep coming across the term “earthquake proof”, e.g. “... how to earthquake-proof a building”. So much so that it’s annoying. Nothing can be earthquake proof. Designed to resist seismic ground motions? Yes, but not earthquake proof. I thought that it was just me getting annoyed by this, but not so long ago I heard a talk by the director of the California Seismic Safety Commission, Richard McCarthy where he commented on the “the myth of earthquake proofing”, and that spurred me to write this post.
The main concern for me is that if someone thinks their building is earthquake proof, they also might think that earthquake insurance is unnecessary. A few years ago I was talking to someone about an old house they owned in the eastern part of the Bay Area. Like most homeowners in California, they didn't have earthquake insurance. What was interesting was that an earthquake engineer had advised them not to bother, and spend the money instead on retrofitting their house. The logic given that even with earthquake insurance, you will always lose up to the deductible, and it’d be better to spend that money proactively now than to lose it later. I can see where that argument is coming from. The deductible can seem high for earthquake policies, and it fits in with the old adage that prevention is cheaper than treatment. Yet I don’t think the argument holds up under further scrutiny. What if you do the retrofit and still get damage on the uninsured building? You are then paying the cost of the retrofit and the cost of the full damage.
Retrofitting an older building in an earthquake exposed location does make sense, and smart insurers will charge a lower premium for retrofits that have a known benefit for reducing damage. That premium reduction might not be as much as you expect, though. We also know that nature can exceed expectations and engineering designs can fail - either because they are pushed beyond their capacity or because they do not perform as expected. Think of the levee failures during Hurricane Katrina. Surprises like that are rare, but so are damaging earthquakes. Earthquakes by their nature they tend to bring surprises with them.
Really, though, the retrofit and insurance should not be an either/or choice. Structural upgrades and earthquake insurance should sit side by side in the risk mitigation toolbox. Upgrades can mitigate damage and loss of life, while insurance can mitigate the chance of financial ruin. What impresses me about the California Seismic Safety Commission is that they are really thinking about earthquake risk from many different angles, whether a public safety, financial resilience or building damage issue. I recommend browsing through some of their reports on topics such as what small businesses need in order to recover quickly, whether we will have a water supply to fight fires after an earthquake, using drones to assess earthquake damage post-event, and more.
Maybe this use of the term “earthquake proof” has grown out of a desire to stop us all procrastinating and do something about our collective earthquake risk. Seismic resistant design is, of course, worthwhile. However, overselling the benefits could end up with more distrust than you started with. Insurers and reinsurers should discourage the term “earthquake proof” -- an unachievable goal. Instead we can encourage terms like “increased earthquake resilience”. We can never protect ourselves against earthquakes completely, but there are many ways we can give ourselves more protection. Seismic resistant design measures and earthquake insurance are two tools we can all do more to promote.
Category: Climate/natural disasters: Earthquakes