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Mudslide Insurance Rare, Expensive

Air Force Msgt. Kevin Borden
Washington National Guard
Staff Sgt. Michael Cohan from the 141st Civil Engineer Squadron displays a tattered American flag pulled a pile of debris from the Oso landslide.

Homeowners in the path of the Oso mudslide in Snohomish County aren’t likely to see an insurance payout.

That's because standard homeowner's insurance doesn't cover this type of disaster. And mudslide coverage is not only expensive, it's difficult to purchase.

"Less than 1 percent"

Recovery workers are using chainsaws and heavy equipment to clear the square mile affected by the mudslide. There’s a lot of debate over whether the massive slide came out of the blue, or was a disaster just waiting to happen.

Either way, the majority of homeowners in its path were not insured against it.

"It is less than 1 percent in both Oregon and Washington," says Karl Newman, president of the Seattle-based industry group Northwest Insurance Council.

He says that number is low for a part of the country prone to mudslides. But he says slide coverage is just not part of a typical homeowner policy.

"There's only one type of policy that you can get for that and it's called a 'difference in conditions' policy."

A ‘difference in conditions’ policy is generally not available from your local insurance agent. You have to buy it from a specialty firm.

"If someone buys Jimi Hendrix' old guitar and they want to insure it. Or if you want to insure a parade. You can get that type of insurance that's not something that everyone would experience," explains Newman.

In other words, it's a policy for unusual things for which demand is low.

Are you covered? Probably not.

But demand for mudslide insurance, at least in the short term, may be going up. In neighboring Oregon, news of the Washington disaster is sparking an uptick of interest.

Independent agency Huggins Insurance in Salem is one of the only places in Oregon's hilly capital city that can hook you up with mudslide coverage. The company's TJ Sullivan says their phones have been ringing off the hook.

"These type of events tend to waken people to the fact that things do go wrong and bad things do happen and they want to find out am I covered for this type of an event."

The answer is almost always 'no.' Sullivan walks potential customers through their options but he says the cost usually makes people think twice -- upwards of $1,000 per year, depending on the value of their home.

And Sullivan says after the initial flurry of news coverage, he doesn't expect much long-term interest.

"People probably know somebody who has had a fire in their house. It's a lot rarer that you actually know somebody who's actually been the victim of a mudslide."

Sullivan says demand would probably be higher if more people understood that their existing house insurance doesn't cover mudslides.

Lack of demand

Which brings up the question: Why doesn't it?

Ron Fredrickson of the state of Oregon's Insurance Division says it's pretty much Insurance 101:

"Insurance is basically risk-sharing, and in order for it to work, for it to be reasonably affordable, you have to have a large number of similar units that have similar possibilities of loss."

And Fredrickson says there simply aren't enough homeowners clamoring for coverage to bring down the cost.

"If there was demand, I'm quite certain the carriers would step up to the plate."

But it's sort of a chicken-and-an-egg conundrum. The higher it costs, the fewer people will buy it.

Newman says it just wouldn't be fair to make people who aren't in landslide-prone areas subsidize policies for those who are.

"If you are in a higher-risk situation, there are fewer people to spread that risk to. And so you can't put it into a standard homeowner's policy without upcharging the rates considerably to account for an event like this."

So for now, mudslide insurance remains a relatively rare phenomenon … just like the scale of the slide that devastated the Oso community.

The mudslide death toll is now at 34 and twelve people are still missing. President Obama has declared a major disaster area which opens the door to federal housing assistance and low-interest loans.