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Tick, Tock

For many areas of the country, it may be a matter of time
before fault lines make a move

October 8, 2010
By Scott Westcott

EarthquakeOutside California, the closest most Americans expect to get to an earthquake is Carole King’s iconic song, “I Feel the Earth Move.” Recent events — and scientific analysis — are putting that thinking on shaky ground.

ERIE Agent Jeremy Willis got a very rude awakening about two years back. Literally.

“The house started rattling, the bed was moving, and it woke me right out of a deep sleep,” recalls Willis. “The shaking went on for about ten seconds but it seemed like forever. It took me a while to figure out it was an earthquake.”

Willis doesn’t live in the California quake zone, and he wasn’t visiting a remote tropical location known for earthquakes. He was asleep in his house in Highland, Ill., a community surprisingly close to one of America’s largest—and potentially most dangerous—earthquake fault lines.

Fortunately, the quake, measuring 5.2 on the Richter Scale, caused no major damage. But it served as a wake-up call to Willis and his Customers about what could happen. Even more recently, the same wake-up call shook residents in Canada, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio when a similar size quake struck Ontario on June 23.

“We don’t have earthquakes here,” says Chris Smith, an ERIE Customer with VanScoter Insurance who lives and works in Rochester, N.Y. “We’ve never felt one before, so it took me a minute to register that it was an earthquake causing the vibration.”

Chris thought a few boxes of copy paper had fallen off a shelf in the copy room adjacent to his third-floor office when the quake hit. But after 15 seconds of shaking, he knew it wasn’t falling paper causing the racket. He and his office mates all peered into the hallway, wondering what was happening.

As the year goes on, experience is showing that quakes can happen anywhere. As of June 2010, the United States Geological Survey reported that 8,639 earthquakes had been recorded worldwide for the year, causing 225,494 deaths and nearly $21 billion in damage. Of those, 2,877 earthquakes occurred in the United States, with the vast majority ranging from 2.0–5.9 on the Richter scale.

“Although the quakes that happen in the mid-east and northeast United States aren’t known to be as large as quakes in California, they can still potentially cause damage,” says Julie Rochman, president and CEO of the Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS). The damage can be caused by items falling off bookshelves or cabinets coming loose or even water heaters becoming unstable.

In some cases, a homeowner may not even know damage has occurred, at least not right away. For Chris in New York, the quake caused a small hairline crack he’d previously repaired in his home to reopen. The crack had never been structurally problematic, but Chris was surprised nonetheless when a few days after the quake, he noticed the crack had reappeared.

Even stranger was that Chris’ wife, Heather, and daughter, Emma, who were outdoors buying ice cream near the Erie Canal when the tremor hit, hadn’t felt a thing. Only those inside buildings—more so on floors higher off the ground—seemed to feel the quake.

Small damage, big costs
Over in Illinois, a Customer of Willis’, Nicholas Klaus, had added earthquake coverage to his home at Willis’ urging shortly before the 2008 quake hit.

The Illinois quake only caused minor damage, but it included collapsed porches and shifted bricks—types of damage that can be costly for individual families to repair but with which insurance can help.

“Thankfully, nothing happened to our house, but it was just nice knowing that we had the extra coverage,” says Klaus, who lives with his wife, Ashley, and son, Lucas, in Highland. “It gives you peace of mind because you know if anything major happens, your insurance company will be there.”

New Madrid fault line
The New Madrid Fault and the Wabash Valley Seismic Zone present the greatest earthquake risk east of the Rocky Mountains. Although the earthquakes are less frequent in this area than in places like California, the damage they cause can be far greater due to underlying geology. Learn more at

Although earthquakes in Illinois don’t seem to be common, the state is considered to be a high risk area for quakes because of The New Madrid fault line. The fault stretches from the area near Cairo, Ill., south to Marked Tree, Ark. All told, it crosses five state lines and cuts across the Mississippi River in three places and the Ohio River twice. (The 2008 quake was caused by a nearby minor fault system, the Wabash Valley Seismic zone.)

The folks living in those states are far from alone in being vulnerable to rumbling earth—all 11 of the states in which ERIE does business are susceptible to some degree of seismic activity—even New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., where people least expect it.

“We tend to think about disasters in a way that gives people a false sense of security,” says IBHS’ Rochman. “People often think it can’t happen here. But you need to prepare even if you think bad things won’t happen because they can.”

What to know about coverage
When it comes to insurance and catastrophes, there’s a simple maxim—assume nothing. You probably know that the typical homeowners policy covers the majority of damage from storms, wind or falling trees and branches, as well as fire loss. But did you know that there are certain events that require additional coverage? Earthquakes and floods sit in this latter list.

ERIE Agents are the go-to people who can give you specific details about what is covered under your homeowners policy and what’s not. They can help identify and explain additional coverages to consider.

Willis, the Illinois Agent, holds those types of conversations routinely. With his past personal experience and close proximity to the New Madrid fault line, he urges all of his Customers to get earthquake coverage.

“I have earthquake coverage myself, and I see the value of it because of how close we are to a major fault line,” Willis says. “I think in my lifetime we will see an earthquake big enough to do some serious damage, and people need to be protected.”

Indeed, scientists estimate there’s a 25 percent chance that an earthquake topping 7.5 on the Richter scale will rock the New Madrid region some time before 2040. The last quake of that magnitude hit there in 1811, causing severe damage. In comparison, the quake that recently devastated Haiti registered 7.0 on the Richter scale. And, ironically, the last quake of that magnitude in Haiti occurred in 1811—the same year as the big New Madrid quake.

Willis says the vast majority of his Customers get the coverage. When they do, he is careful to fully explain what is covered and how the insurance works.

“Earthquake coverage typically carries higher deductibles than a homeowners policy,” he says. The reason: the coverage is aimed at insuring against a major loss, not a few broken windows or a favorite vase falling off the mantle. Deductibles can range from two percent of the total loss to up to 10 percent in regions in which seismic activity is more common.

The annual cost of the coverage is reasonable, however. For instance, Willis said a homeowner living in a house valued at $250,000 in his area pays $70 per year for ERIE coverage that includes a deductible of 10 percent of the coverage limit on the home alone. That's $25,000. If other structures or personal property are damaged, other deductibles apply based on the coverage limits for each.*

Terry McConnell, vice president and manager of Personal Lines Underwriting for ERIE, notes that once the ground starts to rumble, it’s too late to secure earthquake coverage for a period of time. There is a 72-hour waiting period to account for potential aftershocks that might be related to the first quake.

Quake-proofing your home
Insurance provides protection against “the big one” but what about the other smaller tremors that can cause minor damage or injury in your home? An average of 3,500 earthquakes have occurred in the United States each year over the past 10 years, some of them carrying enough oomph to knock items off walls, break windows, and shift foundations.

The IBHS Web site,, can help. It offers an earthquake retrofit guide that provides a comprehensive list of structural and non-structural upgrades. These upgrades, such as securing bookshelves to the wall, are designed to enhance a home’s ability to withstand the effects of a quake.

“The earth is constantly moving,” Rochman says. “There isn’t an earthquake season; they can happen anytime, without warning. The time to prepare is now.”

Be prepared, no matter what
No doubt, after the earthquake rattled the region where ERIE Agent Jeremy Willis lives and does business, people made the effort to “quake-proof” their homes. The tremor served as an incentive for some.

“The few people who we insure who didn’t have earthquake coverage were calling to see if they could get it,” Willis says. “There’s nothing quite like some shaking ground to get people thinking about getting the added protection.”

*The original article and an accompanying graphic contained an error related to the deductible for earthquake coverage. The 10 percent deductible is calculated based on 10 percent of the coverage limits, not 10 percent of the damage. We apologize for the confusion.

While he often finds himself on shaky ground, writer Scott Westcott has only experienced one minor earthquake in his life. Still, he added earthquake coverage to his ERIE policy just to be on the safe side.

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