“California Rocks.” That’s the clever slogan for a new advertising campaign by the California Earthquake Authority (CEA), the state’s privately funded, publicly managed earthquake insurance fund. The message is both an allusion to the Golden State’s culture of musical cool and a literal statement of fact: California is earthquake country. The state experiences hundreds of tiny temblors every day that most people never notice. But it’s only a matter of time before a destructive quake rocks the Golden State. The Southern California Earthquake Center estimates that the state has a 99.7 percent chance of experiencing an earthquake of magnitude 6.7 or greater within the next 23 years. Yet, thanks to shortsighted public policy, only about one in ten Californian residents holds an earthquake-insurance policy.
Until recently, California’s insurers struggled to align their premiums with the actual peril that earthquakes represent. Insurance companies discovered after the 1994 Northridge earthquake that their estimates had been much too low. That magnitude 6.7 temblor killed more than 60 people, injured 9,000, damaged and destroyed thousands of buildings, and left parts of Los Angeles’s freeways in ruins. The losses suffered by insurers—$12.5 billion in all—were greater than the sum of earthquake insurance premiums they’d collected over the previous 25 years.
Politicians have always recognized that earthquakes pose a long-term problem, but their solutions have tended to be ad hoc and counterproductive. Two developments in particular made earthquake insurance less attractive to California homeowners. First, in 1985, the state took the unusual step of mandating that insurers offer earthquake insurance anytime they sell a residential insurance policy. At the time, an estimated 5 to 7 percent of homeowners had earthquake insurance. Publicly, legislators maintained that the goal of linking residential policies with earthquake policies was to raise awareness of earthquake insurance and encourage more people to purchase private coverage. But the underlying reason for the mandate was a state court decision that dramatically expanded insurer’s civil liability for damages not covered under existing policies.
The legislature had at least two choices in responding to the court’s ruling: take a free-market approach while limiting liability, or link the earthquake insurance to residential policies. Lawmakers went with the second, with the encouragement—later regretted—of some in the insurance industry. Insurers believed that most customers would turn down an offer of earthquake insurance, seeing it as an expensive option to hedge against a remote risk; meanwhile, the insurers would have insulated themselves from liability. In fact, the problem worsened: after Northridge, spooked insurers scrambled to limit their exposure to future quakes by refusing to sell residential policies. As a result, the real estate market ground to a halt.
In 1996, looking for a way to get insurers to issue policies again, legislators established the state earthquake authority, which offers earthquake insurance to satisfy the 1985 law. Participating insurers fund the CEA by pooling premiums in the state fund. The CEA’s earthquake insurance is better than what came before, but it’s still expensive, with high deductibles and limited coverage. So it’s unsurprising that only 10 percent of homeowners today are willing to pay for it.
The best way to control costs related to earthquake damage is to restrict development in earthquake-prone areas, but that opportunity passed long ago; the most dangerous areas in California are among the most densely populated. The most realistic and effective way to control earthquake exposure is to distribute the risk privately. Privately financed insurance policies aren’t susceptible to the political whims of state officials and regulators. They have the added virtues of scale, speed, and sensitivity to individual claims.
State senator Bill Monning, a Democrat from Carmel, has taken the lead on reforming the CEA and seeking ways to encourage more homeowners to buy insurance. But he’s found little support from his fellow Democrats. The best Monning could manage last session was a resolution encouraging Congress to pass the Earthquake Insurance Affordability Act, a taxpayer-funded insurance backstop. If lawmakers really wanted to see the public covered, they would liberalize the state’s insurance market and compel companies to innovate and compete. If they considered earthquake peril a statewide risk worthy of universal sacrifice, they might even make buying earthquake coverage a requirement for obtaining a mortgage, not unlike the mandate to purchase flood insurance in flood-prone areas. But until such changes come into effect, homeowners and taxpayers will wind up paying a steep price when California rocks again.