Every adult living in California knows, or should know, that the next significant earthquake is coming just as surely as the next big wildfire. It’s only a matter of time.So why is it that virtually every homeowner carries fire insurance, while barely 12 percent bother with earthquake coverage?Part of the reason is Chuck Quackenbush, the former state insurance commissioner who is now a sheriff’s deputy in Lee County (Ft. Myers), Fla., the same man who shot and critically wounded a suspect about one year ago while the suspect allegedly resisted arrest.”Believe me,” Quackenbush emailed the other day, “I get plenty of bad guys (as a deputy). The dark heart of Man is a frightening thing to behold.”Perhaps, but so is the prospect of dealing with a broken, uninhabitable house, apartment or condominium after an earthquake with no insurance coverage, or not enough.That’s the situation plenty of Californians will be in when (not if) the next large quake strikes in an urban area, as almost 90 percent of homeowners will have no coverage at all and those who do have insurance will be up against huge deductibles and considerably less coverage than was provided in the 1994 Northridge earthquake and earlier ones.For this, many Californians blame Quackenbush, a Republican elected twice as this state’s insurance commissioner. He departed office in 2000 rather than face impeachment in a scandal where he was charged with allowing insurance companies to compensate their customers far less than the actual damages suffered. In return, allegedly, insurance companies set up “educational funds” with some of the money they saved. That money was used for public service TV announcements increasing Quackenbush’s name identification as he set himself up for a possible 2002 run for governor – one that never came off. Insurance companies also contributed to his wife’s unsuccessful 1998 state Assembly campaign and several of his pet non-profits.But of more lasting concern to today’s homeowners was Quackenbush’s cave-in to insurance companies which refused to sell any new property insurance in California so long as they also had to sell quake insurance. Instead of using his office’s significant powers to order that those firms stop selling ultra-profitable car insurance in the state unless they also sold property and quake insurance, Quackenbush devised a new entity called the California Earthquake Authority (CEA), which now is the principle seller of quake insurance in the state.Its policies cost more than earlier ones, call for significantly higher deductibles and don’t cover fences, separate garages and other outbuildings that were included in previous policies. So buyers get less coverage for higher premiums. And, surprise, the percentage of homeowners buying quake insurance has dropped by almost half since the CEA arrived. There’s some doubt whether it will even have enough reserves to pay anything close to full damages to policyholders after the next major quake.This does not perturb Quackenbush a bit. “If customers decide not to buy the CEA policy, that is their choice,” he said. “Only the market can decide what is a viable product.”But there is no free market in quake insurance, with almost all large insurance companies refusing to write their own policies, instead acting as mere conduits for premiums paid to the CEA. A few small firms offer better coverage than the CEA, but at higher prices.Fine with Quackenbush. “A purer way (to deal with earthquake damage) is to set up nothing at all and let the market decide where development takes place,” he said. “You might see far less foolish development in flood plains and coastlines.”You would also see no structures in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, San Diego, San Bernardino, Riverside, Alameda, Contra Costa, Sonoma, Santa Barbara, Marin, Humboldt, San Mateo, Santa Clara, San Benito and several other counties. What a plan!But Quackenbush is right about one thing: Since the advent of the CEA and its minimalist policies with maximum prices, no major politician has attempted to replace it, reform it significantly or force insurance companies to buttress the coverage it offers.The first one to do so will win the undying enmity of the insurance industry – not exactly a kiss of death in California. Several past pols have built entire careers on reputations for bucking the big oil companies, and big insurance is no more popular today than big oil.For sure, Californians need better earthquake insurance than most can get now. And the time to move this item to the top of the legislative agenda is before – not after – the next big earthquake strikes.
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