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Calif. Suffers $1B in Slide Damage

February 13, 1998

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ California will suffer an estimated $1 billion in El Nino-spawned earthslide damages this year _ every penny of it uninsured, geologists and insurance officials said Thursday.

The state is on its way to record rainfall and residents will pay the price, said David Howell of the U.S. Geological Survey.

``If nature were allowed to exist all by itself, there would be landslides,″ he said. ``But man is also exacerbating landslides ... cutting notches in hillsides, moving dirt, cutting out pads for houses, building roads _ all that is destabilizing.″

Even worse news for those who lose their homes will be the discovery that their insurance policies won’t pay for the damage.

People who believe mudslide provisions in their flood insurance protect them are wrong, said Doug Hatt, a State Farm insurance agent. Mudslides are covered only if they are driven by flooding, and the mud rises up from a creek or river bed into a home.

``If the creek rises, your flood insurance covers it,″ said Hatt. ``But if the hillside behind you comes down, you’re out of luck.″

Only one company, Lloyds of London, offers landslide insurance to Californians, says Stephanie Saari of the Western Insurance Information Service _ and not a single person has bought a policy.

``Landslide insurance hasn’t been offered for many years,″ she said. ``Landslides are too unpredictable. And if only the people who lived on hillsides bought it, coverage would be too expensive.″

The Lloyds landslide policy costs an additional $1,200 a year on a $300,000 home, she said.

Howell said even in normal years, California suffers $100 million in slide damages, but those losses attract little attention because they are spread around the state.

Building on hillsides is dangerous but apparently inevitable in the state, said the geologist, who works in the USGS office in Menlo Park.

``We’ve seen geographical models that imply that most of the flatland between here and Auburn (east of Sacramento) will be populated by development,″ he said. ``There will be more and more pressure to move into the hillsides.″

The knowledge they are not alone probably came as cold comfort to the residents Rio Nido along the Russian River.

Eighty-nine more homes were ordered evacuated by Thursday morning as a football field-sized slab of hillside up to 100 feet thick threatened to slide down on their neighborhood.

Three homes have been destroyed and three damaged already by the slide. A total of 135 homes have now been evacuated, said Jill Hale, emergency services spokeswoman for Sonoma County.

The 2 inches more of rain expected to fall by Friday, and a bigger storm due on the weekend, will only make the situation worse, according to county-hired geologist Wayne Haydon.

New slides also threatened multi-million-dollar cliffside homes in San Francisco’s posh Seacliff neighborhood and homes in the Oakland and Berkeley hills east of San Francisco Bay.

El Nino, the Pacific warming phenomenon, has unleashed a series of storms on California over the past 10 days.

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