Whether it's a river of mud or a cascade of rain-saturated soil that damages your home during or after a storm can make all the difference if you are counting on insurance to help cover reconstruction costs.
The distinction may seem absurd to the homeowner picking through the resulting muck, but it's the main factor that determines current insurance coverage, or lack of it.
Damage resulting from flooding or mud caused by rising water is covered under flood insurance issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But damage caused by landslides or the movement of earth on hillsides, even if it's due to torrential rainstorms, is not.
That means that most Californians living on hillsides, above a flood plain, don't have coverage.
The state's insurance industry got out of the business of insuring hillside homes in the 1980s, after the last wave of heavy El Nino-inspired rains. Now insurers say that because so few people live on hillsides, the risk pool is too small to make premiums affordable.
That view is echoed by state Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush, who recently backed away from calls to set up a state-sponsored landslide insurance program similar to the California Earthquake Authority. Premiums for landslide insurance would be too expensive, he said, and the coverage is vital to only a small number of state residents.
His office points to private options as an alternative to a state-backed program, but in fact only one such option exists. Landslide coverage by Lloyds of London is available only through San Francisco-based Montgomery & Collins Inc. The brokerage firm began offering policies Jan. 1 at rates beginning at $1,200 annually for $300,000 in coverage.
Although the firm has received more than 600 calls in the last three months, only about 200 policies have been issued. An industry spokesman noted that the new offering was no panacea: Applicants may be ineligible if their property has experienced previous landslides.
Quackenbush's critics say the real problem is the commissioner's propensity to let insurance companies mandate ever-greater areas of exclusion from homeowner coverage, which currently excludes damage from landslides, mudslides or sinkholes.
"It's 'slice 'n' dice' policy coverage," said Phil Roberto of the Proposition 103 Enforcement Project, a consumer advocacy group.
Consultants to key state legislative committees have already begun to explore legislation that might reinstate some portions of the "all-risk" homeowners' policies common in the 1960s. But they say legislation is not likely until after studies are completed this year.
The rising numbers of endangered homes and their lack of insurance coverage is "brand-new on our radar screen; until homes started sliding . . . we assumed it was a 'covered peril,' " said one aide working on the issue.
About the only relief most landslide victims can expect may come from a disaster-relief package, AB 2456, which is being rushed through the Legislature. The bill would allow victims of the 1997-98 floods and storms to deduct 90% of their uninsured loss from the income they report on their state taxes. The bill will be heard in the Assembly's Revenue and Taxation Committee on Monday.
Please send comments or suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org