Across the country, mud makes a big mess. Every year, U.S. mudslides cause an estimated $1 billion to $2 billion a year in damage. On top of that, mudslides kill 25 to 50 Americans each year.
Making the situation even murkier: Standard home insurance policies don't cover mudslides or their relatives -- mudflows.
Mudslides and mudflows
A mudslide is a movement of earth or rock that travels downhill, while a mudflow is a runny, watery stream of mud. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a mudflow is a runny, watery stream of mud, while a mudslide is a downhill movement of water-saturated earth or rock.
Loretta Worters, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute, says flood insurance -- typically purchased through the federal government’s National Flood Insurance Program -- will cover damage from a mudflow but not a mudslide. "Sometimes it can become complicated to determine the difference between the two,” she says.
Flood insurance supplements standard home insurance. It can cover your home, the contents of your home or both. Premiums for flood insurance can range from less than $100 to several thousands of dollars, depending on how much your home is worth and whether you live in a flood-prone area.
As for mudslides, Vanessa Mutchler, a licensed sales producer at Texas-based GNS Insurance Services, says damage could be covered by an “earth movement” add-on, a separate earth movement policy, an earthquake or earth movement add-on (if offered in your state), or an earthquake insurance policy (if offered in your state). “The availability of earthquake and earth movement polices vary by state,” she says.
Worters says some home insurers may let you buy mudslide or landslide add-ons for your homeowner's insurance policy. But, she says, "you should check to verify before you need to tap into your policy in the event of any mud-related claim."
Mutchler says home insurance companies usually prohibit coverage for mud-related losses, primarily because policy income in a mud-heavy region would be greatly overshadowed by claim payouts. "So the insurance company may not financially survive an areawide loss related to mud,” she says.
Worters adds: “Home insurance companies typically exclude coverage for mud-related losses because the risk is far too great and the insurance would be far too costly."
Exceptions to the rule
As with most any insurance policy, there are exceptions to the "we don't cover mud" rule.
Arnie Abramson, partner and executive general adjuster at The Greenspan Co./Adjusters International, an insurance adjusting and consulting firm in California, says that if a mudslide or mudflow occurs because trees and plants were damaged in an earlier fire, for instance, and your area never has experienced flooding or mud problems, your home insurance claim probably will be covered as a fire loss. “You would have to prove to your home insurance company that if the fire never happened, the flood or mud event would never have happened,” he says.
Before buying a home, ask about mudslide activity in the area, and dig up any projections you can find about mudslide dangers on the property. Your state’s geological survey can recommend local professionals who can help with mudslide protection.
“It is best that a homeowner be wary of living in an area prone to mudslides,” Worters says.
Mudflows are much harder to predict than mudslides because they can be triggered by heavy rain, melting snow and other weather events that aren’t tracked by geological surveys or that can occur spontaneously.
To further protect yourself from mud, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that you:
- Assume that hills, steep slopes and wildfire-charred areas are at risk of mud disasters.
- Contact your state’s geological survey or natural resources department to find out whether a mudslide ever has happened near your home.
Check with local authorities about emergency routes and evacuation plans in the event of a mud disaster.
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