Experts Recommend Insurance With Earthquakes, Floods Part of Life in Arkansas

by Mark Friedman  on Monday, Mar. 18, 2013 12:00 am  

Michael Alexander of Argenia LLC of Little Rock said he sells more earthquake insurance after a big quake has been reported. (Photo by Michael Pirnique)

Within the next 50 years, a major earthquake is expected to rattle Arkansas.

But predicting when and where it will strike is difficult, said Haydar Al-Shukri, director for the Arkansas Earthquake Center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

“A 6.5 [magnitude earthquake] in the area could create major problems,” he said.

He said most buildings in the state weren’t designed to withstand such shaking. A number of major oil and gas pipelines also could snap during the big one.

And if that weren’t enough to worry about, more disasters could hit the state in the meantime. Weather watchers have noticed the increased frequency of floods.

“We’re going to have floods. We’re going to have droughts,” said Michael Borengasser, the state climatologist for Arkansas and national flood insurance program coordinator. “It’s just a matter of when.”

Experts are warning Arkansans who live near earthquake activity and flood zones to be prepared by having flood and earthquake insurance.

“You never think it will happen to you,” said Michael Alexander, vice president of Argenia LLC of Little Rock, which sells earthquake insurance.

He said Argenia, which was formed in 1976, has never had to pay a claim for earthquake damage, and he’s not aware of an earthquake claim being paid in the state. But that doesn’t mean property owners will never need it.

Alexander declined to say how many homes his company covers.

The Arkansas Insurance Department doesn’t track how many earthquake claims have been paid in the state.

But flood insurance payments have been rising. Flood insurance is handled by the federal government and it paid $28.85 million to Arkansans for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, a 3.6 percent increase over the previous year, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The number of claims only dropped by 22 to 1,116 in fiscal 2012 compared with the same period in 2011.

The payments have skyrocketed since the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2009, when FEMA paid $2.6 million in claims in Arkansas. And in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2007, only $549,000 was paid for claims.

Borengasser, of the national flood insurance program, said more floods started occurring in 2008, after nearly 18 years of little action.

He said he couldn’t attribute the recent rise of floods to any one thing, but it might be tied to global warming.

“It could be we’re getting more extreme weather,” Borengasser said.

Earthquakes Coming

Al-Shukri, the director of the Earthquake Center, said earthquakes had been hitting the state for years, mainly because of the New Madrid Fault, which is blamed for a series of catastrophic quakes in 1811-12 that briefly caused the Mississippi River to flow backward.

In addition, a fault line near Marianna has been dormant for decades, he said. Researchers are investigating that site for more information, he said.

A recent wave of seismic activity around Greenbrier has been linked to hydraulic fracturing, he said. The drilling in the fracking process hasn’t caused the tremors, but the fluid that is pumped into the ground to break the shale rocks and release the natural gas is linked to the quakes.

He said not all of the fluid injections were causing tremors, either.

“We anticipate in the future there will be some kind of major earthquake” in Arkansas, Al-Shukri said. As for where or when it will strike, that remains unknown, he said.

In the meantime, “a lot of preparation” needs to be done, including retrofitting buildings and schools and malls, he said.

It would be a good idea for residents to have an emergency kit handy and enough food and water to last 24 to 72 hours, he said.

Alexander, of the insurance company Argenia, said homeowners’ insurance policies don’t cover damage done by earthquakes, which is why a supplemental earthquake policy is needed.

“I personally am not willing to take that gamble,” Alexander said. “So I carry it as well.”

When an earthquake occurs that’s big enough to make the evening news, Alexander sees an uptick in people wanting to buy coverage.

The cost of the insurance depends on the value of the house and how much coverage is needed. He suggested buying the same coverage as the regular homeowner’s policy.

Earthquake coverage for a home generally costs between $50 and $300 annually. The trouble is that when the policy is set to renew, people start questioning if they really need the policy because they haven’t filed a claim.

“It’s worth the gamble,” Alexander said.

Rising Tide

The city of Hot Springs has an emergency warning system that will alert residents when a flood is on its way, said Denny McPhate, public works director for the city. But that’s not enough to prevent flood damage.

“We’ve had a history of major flooding,” he said. The last major flood was in 1990 when cars floated down Central Avenue and business owners had to deal with four and five feet of water.

McPhate said it’s only a matter of time before the next flood comes to Hot Springs.

A retention system would need to be built to protect the city from the overflow of water. That project, though, would most likely cost between $10 million and $20 million. He said the funding would have to come from the federal government.

“We have no funding,” McPhate said.

Borengasser, the state climatologist, said that with the uptick in floods, people can’t wait four to five years to have a plan.

He said state officials should encourage people not to build homes where there’s a risk of flooding or to elevate the structures to prevent flood damage.

The climate models show that Arkansans should expect floods and droughts in the next several years.

“I would prepare for it,” Borengasser said.



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