The Rock Won’t Save You From Earthquakes; Retrofitting Might

By | May 29, 2015

It has been a big week for earthquake news in California. Hollywood gave us “San Andreas,” a thrill a minute dystopian drama starring Dwayne Johnson (The Rock) as a heroic flying firefighter and Paul Giamatti as a jittery professor-like creature. Early reviews suggest the film is light on substance and heavy on gaping holes in the ground.

Dr. Lucy Jones, a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, did us all a favor by live tweeting the premiere:

Meanwhile, the state Legislature in Sacramento stayed on track to embrace the cutting edge of earthquake-mitigation policy by advancing S.B. 602 to the Assembly. The measure – sponsored by state Sen. Bill Monning, D-Monterey – has faced no opposition to date.

Monning’s bill provides the California Earthquake Authority, a state instrumentality for providing earthquake insurance, the authority to issue loans for the purposes of residential seismic retrofitting. While not as dramatic as airborne rescues in the midst of municipal collapse, this new lending authority is a big deal.

Retrofitting a home to withstand the impact of an earthquake is an expensive proposition. On average, it costs between $3,000 and $15,000. Still, it is a worthwhile proposition since it is estimated that for every $1 spent on earthquake mitigation, four dollars are saved on claims. A retrofitted home is both less expensive to repair and less expensive to insure.

While homeowners ideally would opt both to retrofit their homes and to carry earthquake insurance, the potential savings from retrofitting are even more important in light of the fact that a mere 10 percent of Californians carry earthquake insurance. Currently, for most of those subject to ground movement, an insurance claim is not an option in the event of an earthquake. The savings realized through a retrofit may be all that stands between them and financial ruin.

If implemented, the “Property Secured Mitigation Program” would allow homeowners voluntarily to avail themselves of CEA funds for retrofitting purposes. The PSMP covers 100 percent of the expense of retrofitting a home, requires no down payment and amortizes the cost of a retrofit over time.

What makes the program viable is that it actually records a lien against the property itself. That way, if a homeowner moves before the retrofit is paid off, the expenses, as with the benefits, continue to run with the property.

The Legislature’s enthusiasm for the idea was recently affirmed by the CEA itself. At its most recent governing board meeting, the organization decided to support S.B. 602.

The R Street Institute is an enthusiastic supporter of S.B. 602. It combines the scale and reach of government without warping the private price signals necessary to transmit a full understanding of risk. As the number of retrofitted properties increase, earthquake insurance premiums will go down. Hopefully, then, more Californians will embrace the earthquake insurance that they so desperately need.

Seismic retrofitting and earthquake insurance may not be sexy, but they work better and cost less than keeping The Rock and his helicopter on retainer.

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