What to learn from Japan

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Over the last week, the international headlines have been dominated by the disaster in Japan. First came the earthquake registering 9.0 on the Richter Scale. This makes it one of the most severe earthquakes since accurate record-keeping began. Then came the tsunami. With only minutes, there was no evacuation. Instead, a wall of water some thirty feet high, swept everything in its path to destruction. Now we watch as Japan struggles with a nuclear disaster in one of its major power stations. At times like this, our hearts go out to the survivors. It's one of the worst tragedies in a developed economy for the last ten years. But this is not just a time to reflect on how fragile the Earth is and how easily our civilization can be disrupted. We must also look to home and review the preparations we have made should there be local problems.

The West coast sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire and, at some point, there may be a major quake affecting California. We should wonder whether the nuclear power plants in the areas most at risk will fare better than those in Japan. Southern California proudly boasts the design for the San Onofre Plant will survive a 7.0 quake. As a word of explanation, every change in a whole number, say from 7.0 to 8.0 means the quake is ten times as strong. It would not hurt to look carefully at the safety issues at all plants close to areas at risk of a quake.

Closer to home, we should take out our own insurance policies. Remember, the wording used by insurers is very precise. If it says something clearly, that is all it says. There is nothing more. Do not make the mistake of assuming the words will include everything you hope. So, for example, a reference to wind damage may cover the fall of a tree on to your home, but not a tornado that lifts off your roof. Sadly, tornadoes are rather specific events and more common in particular parts of America. They are always dealt with as a special endorsement. So what is included? In most policies, you are covered for accidental damage to contents, and damage to contents and structure by fire. You will be able to replace much of what has been taken in a burglary and "ordinary" wind damage is usually included. But after that, you are into formal additions to the policy.

Almost all homeowners insurance companies exclude earthquake damage and, because of the problems of geology in other areas, there are strict limits on damage caused by mudslides, landslides, sink holes, and the like. Flooding is now most often a matter for the Federal government. Even there, problems will arise if the cause of water arriving in quantity is a tsunami.

Once you read through all the exceptions and limitations, you will realize how thin your cover is. Now is the time to get homeowners insurance quotes to see how much it will cost to fill in some of the holes. Unfortunately some cover is expensive and you may not think it economic. But you should at least be well enough informed to make good decisions.

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