NPR Story
2:35 pm
Thu March 27, 2014

Landside Expert: More Mapping, Better Insurance Needed In The Northwest

Landslide expert and Portland State University geologist Scott Burns spoke with KUOW’s Marcie Sillman on Wednesday during the daily talk show The Record. Burns talked about the challenges to obtain landslide insurance in the Northwest and a New Zealand insurance model that could provide better coverage.

Sillman: Where in Washington state do we have good landslide maps?

Burns: One of the best ones is down in Cowlitz County. They had the 1998 landslide, the Kelso landslide, which was an incredible landslide that destroyed 60 houses. [Department of Natural Resources] in Washington responded and put out what I think is an excellent example of landslide susceptibility or hazard mapping for that county.

Sillman: It sounds like a great idea in response to a tragedy. Why don’t more cities or counties act proactively to get good landslide hazard mapping?

Burns: I wish they would, but every county budget or city budget is stressed. They just don’t have enough money. Unless they are pushed to the point of being asked to do that, they won’t spend money for that.

We have the ability to make really really good maps because we have LIDAR, which is this laser imaging system where we can see right through the trees, see the ground, and see where past landslides have occurred. That’s the first step in making a really good quality map.

Sillman: The Army Corps of Engineers did have a report on the risk of a catastrophic slide [near Oso] that dated back to 1999. We spoke to the author of that particular report, Dan Miller, yesterday. Would better information or better mapping necessarily have made people safer?

Burns: It’s all a communication thing. Dan Miller’s report was excellent. So, the county had the information. The problem is that it did not get communicated to the commissioners in the county or the land use planners.

Sillman: One of the issues in this whole tragedy is landslide insurance. Why do you think that landslide insurance is a key to make people safer?

Burns: This is the last of the major geological hazards that normal homeowner’s insurance does not cover, and it is rare that people will get landslide insurance. You can buy it through Lloyd’s of London. They’re the ultimate insurers, but it’s so expensive — a minimum of $1,000 a year and it goes up from there.

All those people that lost their houses in the Oso landslide have lost everything, and there’s no insurance covering them. We lost lives. That is the worst thing. But then property is the second thing. Hopefully, this will be enough of an impetus to take us to the next level and put more pressure on insurance companies to possibly come forward with landslide insurance.

A great example is New Zealand, where I used to live. I was down in the country when they had the big earthquake a couple of years ago.

Every house in the country has all-hazard insurance, which covers earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and landslides. Everybody pays into this, so if you have an event you’re covered. I’m hoping that someday we get to that level here in the United States. It’s going to take time.

Sillman: Scott Burns is a landslide expert and geologist at Portland State University. Scott, thanks for joining us.

Burns: Thank you, too.

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