Property owners face double financial hit after Oso mudslide

People who own property in the landslide area near Oso probably didn’t have insurance that protects against such a disaster — and, worse, they’re still on the hook for their mortgages.

Standard homeowner and business policies specifically exclude damage caused by earth movement such as a landslide. A property owner would need to buy a special policy just to protect against landslides.

“Myself, I have earthquake insurance, but I never thought about landslide insurance,” said Steve Valandra, a spokesman with state Office of the Insurance Commissioner. “I personally didn’t know that you could get landslide insurance.”

More than 50 properties are located in the area of the devastation. People who own property in the slide area still owe what remains on their mortgages even if they can’t use the land. Arrangements will need to be worked out between the lender and the property owner.

“The loss of life and property in the Oso slide is tragic and devastating, but the loans remain legally binding contracts to be repaid by the borrower,” said Lyn Peters, director of communications from the state’s Department of Financial Institutions, in an email.

In Washington, only 4,700 home and business owners have purchased policies that protect against landslides, according to the NW Insurance Council, a nonprofit group funded by insurance agencies. That is out of 1.5 million single-family homes in the state.

No insurance company in Washington even offers the policy.* Homeowners have to purchase it from an agency outside the state.

“Homeowner insurance polices are designed to cover risks everybody face,” said Karl Newman, NW Insurance Council president. “Fire, wind, burglaries. That’s what makes those policies very affordable.”

The average annual premium for a standard policy is $595. He said that anyone who owns a home above or below a steep slope should consider adding landslide insurance, which is called in the industry “difference-in-condition” policies. These policies cover landslides, earthquakes, mudflows and flooding.

“It is available, it is affordable, but a lot of people don’t know about it,” Newman said.

Thousands of people are at risk for landslides in the Puget Sound area. Newman noted that the first anniversary of the Whidbey Island landslide isThursday.

It costs about $1,000 a year for a home valued at $300,000. That and a standard policy are less than what most people pay to insure two cars, he said.

Many people assume that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will cover them in a disaster. But he said that FEMA typically only offers low-interest loans that need to be repaid.

That process hasn’t been approved, said Marybeth O’Leary, a FEMA external affairs officer, who has set up shop in Darrington.

Gov. Jay Inslee has requested — and President Barack Obama has granted — an emergency declaration, which helps with immediate relief efforts.

To get federal financial aid, the state needs to ask for and receive what is called a “major federal declaration,” O’Leary said.

“The governor of the state has to decide that the level of need is beyond what the state can provide then at that point they ask for assistance,” O’Leary said.

Then the president would need to agree. It’s an administrative decision with the rules set up by Congress.

If that happens, aid can come in two parts — assistance for the state and local agencies to help to rebuild roads, bridges and other infrastructure, and individual assistance for property owners.

“If a person has insurance, they should always pursue that first,” O’Leary said. “If, for whatever reason, the insurance doesn’t provide relief, there would be eligibility from FEMA.”

The state is developing its request through its Emergency Management Department.

Property owners whose land was damaged or destroyed by the mudslide can apply to the Snohomish County Assessor to reduce the taxable value of their land. Qualified property owners will have their 2014 property taxes reduced on the value lost as result of the mudslide.

People also can apply for unemployment benefits if they’ve been affected by the disaster. The Employment Security Department has created a webpage with information for victims.

After the mudslide, the Office of the Insurance Commissioner posted a blog item about landslide insurance on its website. It has created a separate page to answer people’s questions.

“We just figured right away that people might have questions about it,” Valandra said. “They always do after a big flood or an earthquake or a big winter storm, those types of events.”

So far, they haven’t received many phone calls as people are dealing with the devastation.

Valandra said that flood insurance might include protection against a landslide. But it really depends on how the policy is written.

“It’s unfortunate that that’s the way it is, but that’s just typically how it works out,” Valandra said.

Resources

Here are some resources for people who have lost property or have been affected by the Oso landslide:

*Correction, March 28, 2014: No insurance companies offer landslide insurance in Washington, but people can get the insurance from local agencies or agents licensed purchase it from out of state. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated otherwise.

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