Wildfires, Floods and Earthquakes: Are You Covered?

Homeowners insurance pays off in some disasters, but it has surprising gaps. Don’t wait until you’re wading through your living room to find out what they are.


Westerners are watching nervously as wildfires burn across their region, fueled by drought and high temperatures. The eastern and southeastern United States have their own anxieties, from hurricanes and tornadoes to flooding. Meanwhile, earthquakes are a constant preoccupation in much of the country, underscored recently by The New Yorker’s grim assessment of risk in the Pacific Northwest.

Will your insurance pay if your home is damaged or lost in one of these disasters? Here’s a summary of what flood, earthquake and home hazard insurance policies do and don’t cover, along with steps to take to protect yourself at a price you can pay.

Earthquake insurance is particularly expensive. If you can’t afford it, you can nevertheless take steps to reduce expensive damage. FEMA’s brochure, Reduce Your Risk From Natural Disasters, has low-cost measures to take against quakes, floods, hurricanes and wildfires. 

Wildfire: Are you covered?

The wildfire season got an early, aggressive start this year. Fires are scorching parts of Washington, California, Oregon, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Arizona, Nevada and Colorado, and some have consumed residential neighborhoods. (Here’s a Google map of current wildfires.)

While your homeowners policy probably doesn’t cover many disasters — mudslides, sinkholes, war, pollution, mold, sewer backup, landslides, earthquakes and floods among them — it does protect against fire, including wildfire, says The National Fire Protection Association’s Firewise site.

Do you have enough coverage? The Insurance Information Institute, an insurance industry nonprofit, advises buying enough, if possible, to:

  • Replace your home’s structure. To tell if your coverage is adequate, ask one or two local builders to estimate the price of replacing your home. If you own an older home, the institute adds, you may not be able to buy a replacement-cost policy. Instead, you may have to buy a modified replacement-cost policy.
  • Replace your stuff. A homeowners policy typically covers the replacement value of possessions inside the home: your furniture, tools, appliances, clothes and valuables, but with limits. You may need additional coverage to fully insure expensive jewelry, art or collectibles.
  • Cover loss of use. You could spend thousands of dollars on shelter and meals while your home is being repaired. Get a policy with a generous allowance for loss of use.
  • Cover liability. If someone is hurt in your home or by someone in your family, including pets, your homeowners policy’s liability coverage pays damages and court costs. A liability limit is usually $100,000. You may want to supplement it with extra liability insurance.

Homeowners insurance basic

  • Read your policy. Or review it with an agent or broker to learn what is covered and the limits. Consider filling coverage gaps with additional insurance, an umbrella policy for added liability coverage, for example.
  • Cut costs. Get the coverage you need affordably with such strategies as discounts, comparison shopping and higher deductibles. Here are 10 ways to cut costs on home insurance.
  • Inventory your possessions. You’ll save money and time making a claim by having a video record of your home’s contents. Read “The Most Important Thing You Can Do Today” for how to make and store an inventory.

Hurricanes: Are you covered?

Hurricane season, from mid-August through October, brings risks from high wind, rain and flooding in storm-prone regions.

Your homeowners policy may cover some wind damage. Read it or review it with a professional to find the limits and specifics. Wind damage coverage often has a separate, higher deductible. For example, if your home is worth $250,000 and the hurricane deductible is 3 percent, you’d pay $7,500 out-of-pocket before your insurance kicks in.

Water damage is trickier. Homeowners policies typically cover water damage only in limited instances. For flood protection get separate insurance:

  • Flood insurance has a 30-day waiting period before coverage begins.
  • You’ll need separate policies for the home’s structure and the contents.
  • The maximum coverage is $250,000 for a structure and $100,000 for contents.
  • FloodSmart.gov lists coverage limits here and rates for low- or moderate-risk homes here.
  • Nolo, the legal publisher, describes the ins and outs of flood insurance.

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