Missouri report warns of earthquake insurance collapse

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri faces a possible earthquake insurance marketplace collapse and devastating economic losses if a powerful trembler hits the New Madrid fault line anytime soon, according to a new report from the state's insurance department.

Despite the risk, the report from the Missouri Department of Insurance, Financial Institutions and Professional Registration said earthquake insurance coverage dropped to only 14% of homes in the New Madrid area in 2018. In 2000, 60% of homes were covered. The report was released Monday, just days after intense earthquakes buckled highways and damaged homes in California.

"We are very concerned about the state of our earthquake insurance market in Missouri," state insurance Director Chlora Lindley-Myers said in a statement.

Saint Louis University seismologist Robert Herrmann said Missouri has been spared from major earthquakes in recent years, lulling concerns over possible tremblers. But Hermann said he "would recommend that they still worry about earthquakes."

"The problems that are here are the same problems that are in California," Herrmann said. "But earthquake insurance is expensive, and earthquake insurance doesn't cover everything."

A series of powerful earthquakes occurred along the New Madrid fault line beginning in 1811, including one with an estimated magnitude of 7.7 on a 12-point scale used to measure intensity. The Missouri report points to a recent risk assessment that predicted total economic losses of $300 billion if a similarly strong earthquake hits again — the highest total economic loss of any natural disaster in U.S. history, according to the agency.

Insured homes in the region could face as much as $120 billion in damages and uninsured homes could face another $100 million.

The U.S. Geological Survey predicts there's a 7% to 10% chance that an earthquake of that intensity could happen again in the next 50 years. There's a 25% to 40% likelihood that a magnitude 6 earthquake or greater hits.

The Missouri agency's report cited higher costs and less access to insurance as part of the reason more homes are not insured for such an event.

Some insurance agencies, such as Allstate, stopped offering earthquake coverage out of concern over the risk a massive payout poses to insurers. For consumers, earthquake insurance deductibles in Missouri can be as high as 20% or more of a home's value, according to the report.

Missouri Insurance Coalition Executive Director Brandon Koch said increased development in earthquake-prone areas, plus older homes not built to withstand intense shaking, contribute to rising costs.

"Especially in those areas that are more prone to earthquakes, the cost is going to be more significant," Koch said. "Because if a big earthquake hits, there's going to be widespread damage, and it's most likely to be catastrophic."