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earthquake home

Earthquake Readiness for Your Home

By Tobias RobertsRise Writer
Oct 22, 2019

When we think about natural disasters and their potential to damage our homes, massive hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, and floods may come to mind. Severe weather events are becoming ever more frequent due to global warming. Because of this, natural disasters around the world accounted for an estimated U.S. $153.9 billion in economic losses in 2016 alone. Here at Rise, we have written about how to protect your home from floods and wildfires. We offer advice for creating a more resilient home, prepared to withstand all types of severe weather events.

If you live near a fault line, however, the risk for a potentially catastrophic earthquake is a constant danger that needs consideration. One study estimates that about half of all Americans live in an area affected by damaging earthquakes. Almost one out of every five households, or close to 60 million people, live in the regions considered "moderate" hazard zones for earthquakes. Despite the underlying hazard that earthquakes represent, there are several things that homeowners can do to prepare their homes for a potential quake. Below, we offer a complete "earthquake-readiness" checklist to help homeowners secure and protect their homes.

Some Statistical Considerations 

In early July of this year (2019), the state of California experienced its most massive earthquake of the past two decades. The 7.1 magnitude quake, fortunately, didn't cause any casualties, but economic damages amounted to over 100 million dollars. Aftershocks from this earthquake continue to affect the area for many months.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimate, economic losses from earthquakes add up to an estimated 4.4 billion dollars a year. Because medium to large earthquakes can permanently damage the structural integrity of a building, many homes must be completely torn down and rebuilt in the event of significant damage.

earthquake hazard map
2014 USGS National Seismic Hazard Map

Earthquake-Readiness for your Home 

Fortunately, homeowners can use several strategies to renovate their homes for higher resistance to earthquakes. Seismic retrofitting is the process of modifying existing buildings and structures to make them more resistant and resilient to the ground movement associated with tremors. A building that has undergone seismic retrofits should withstand minor to moderate earthquakes regularly without suffering significant structural damage that requires repairs. In the event of a severe shaking event (usually measured by earthquakes that are 6.5 and above on the Richter scale), the structural core of the building should be able to suffer damage without collapsing.

The main benefit of an earthquake-ready home is to protect you and your family from any potential physical harm that could occur during a significant seismic event. An earthquake-ready home can save you tens of thousands of dollars in possible repairs on an economic level. After a critical seismic event, buildings that suffer foundation issues are routinely looking at renovations that can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Homeowners who do not have any earthquake insurance policy will spend an average of $30,000 in structural repairs if their home's foundation is severely damaged. Homes that incorporate structural resiliency to withstand earthquakes offer sustainability benefits. They can reduce the demand for building materials and diminish the abundance of building debris associated with damaged homes. One recent study found that a 7.5 level earthquake in a major urban area could produce upwards of 300 cubic kilometers of debris due to improperly constructed buildings.

An earthquake-ready home is a mixture of homeowner preparedness and structural improvements to the building. Some of the following features and elements of an earthquake ready home include:

  • Check the National Seismic Hazard Map to determine your level of vulnerability. An earthquake can occur suddenly and unexpectedly anywhere. These maps provided by the USGS include both short-term and long-term models to assess the probability of seismic events in some vulnerable regions of the country.
  • Create a Family Emergency Plan: Everyone in the household should be aware of escape routes and safe areas in an earthquake. In addition, making sure that all family members know where the shutoff valves for gas, water, and electricity is essential to limiting the damage that could occur in the event of an earthquake.
  • Protect elements inside the home: A straightforward way to limit damage inside your home is to secure components to avoid damage if movement occurs. Anchoring bookcases and other heavy furniture to the wall, securing hanging lights and chandeliers to the permanent structures of your house, and utilizing flexible connections for all appliances that run on natural gas are examples of this. Gas leaks during an earthquake event can become a severe fire hazard, which is another reason homeowners should consider transitioning to an all-electric home.
  • Fortify the structural integrity of your home: Seismic retrofits should focus on increasing the connections between the walls and the foundation of your home. Incorporating anchor bolts, steel plates, or other types of "ties" between your home and the foundation are examples of best practices. Additional bracing on the cripple wall and along any unreinforced walls or masonry elements is essential.

Earthquake Insurance for your Home 

Homeowners living in vulnerable areas would do well to consider investing in earthquake insurance for their homes. Even though every homeowner in California is at risk for earthquake damage, only 10 percent of Californians have separate earthquake insurance. Part of this is because almost no major insurance company will offer protection from earthquakes under a standard homeowner insurance policy. While the U.S. government does provide decent insurance coverage for damage from floods, most homeowners opt for earthquake insurance offered by private companies.

The Insurance Information Institute says, "coverage for other kinds of damage that may result from earthquakes, such as fire and water damage due to burst gas and water pipes, is provided by standard home and business insurance policies in most states. Cars and other vehicles are covered for earthquake damage by comprehensive insurance, which also protects against flood and hurricane damage as well as theft."

Investing in a separate earthquake insurance policy for your home can protect families from expensive structural damage that could cause significant financial stress. Either costly foundation repair or the need to completely demolish and rebuild a building could cost homeowners in the six-figure range. In the western region of the United States, where earthquake risk is higher, most insurers have an average 10 percent deductible. If a significant earthquake completely ruins a $250,000 home, homeowners would only be looking at a $25,000 bill to either completely remodel or tear down and rebuild. Premiums for earthquake insurance policies are generally lower for stick-framed homes. Buildings with wood-frame structures are typically more seismically resistant than concrete, brick, or other masonry structures.

Homeowners in earthquake-prone regions would do well to look at the increasing availability of publicly managed insurance programs. In California, for example, The California Earthquake Authority (CEA) is today the largest provider of earthquake insurance, not just in California but across the nation. The CEA is a publicly managed, though mostly privately funded, insuring agency. The standard residential earthquake policy they offer includes a 15 percent deductible. It consists of a "cost of living" expense if homeowners are forced out of their homes for significant repairs due to earthquake damage.

An unexpected earthquake can occur at any moment and potentially lead to devastating home damage. The strategies and suggestions offered above can help homeowners prepare and protect their homes from these types of natural disasters.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-07-22T17:37:31+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.