Getting insured on an active volcano

The Royal Gardens subdivision in Hawai'i being inundated with lava flows during a 1983 eruption of Kilauea. Image courtesy of the USGS.

The game of insurance is everywhere in the news these days so it isn't too surprising to run across this brief article about the perils of getting insured if you live on an active volcano. Many people who live on the big island of Hawai'i face this challenge because a large swaths of the island fall into what is called a "Lava Zone 1", which more or less means that you live someplace that lava is likely to visit in the foreseeable future. Considering that the entire island is made of overlapping volcanoes and their associated lava flows, it is not too surprising that people would want to know where it is more or less likely that a lava flow might incur its slow-moving wrath. Thus, the division of the island into relative lava hazard zones. These zones represent areas that have been covered by lava over the last 200 and 750 years, as defined by Mullineux and Peterson for the USGS back in 1974. It pretty clearly shows that building in a Lava Zone 1 area that you have more than a 50-50 shot of being covered in lava over a 750 year period. Now, I'm not sure how this all breaks down in the vast computers of the insurance companies, but apparently its not a bet they're willing to take anymore. Lesson here might be that if you want to live in places like the slopes of Kilauea, insurance might not be easy to come by - but that is the tradeoff: natural beauty for a modern sense of security.

Just to remind you how active Kilauea is, the glow at the summit vent of the volcano has returned after being snuffed out by a rockfall earlier this summer. There is a brief infrared thermal video of the Halema`uma`u Crater showing the heat and gases escaping from the revived vent.

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Last time I went to Hawaii it was on one of those "get a discount room as they want to try and sell you a timeshare" deals. The resort (Hilton at Waikaloa) was built on a flow of really magnificent picrite that turned out to be from either the 1843 or 1859 eruption. I don't know if they had trouble getting insurance, but given how cheesy the decor was (and how much the restaurants overcharged) it would be pretty amazing to see that resort taken out by another picrite.

By Adam Kent (not verified) on 12 Aug 2009 #permalink

I think the 1859 flows are just south of the Waikoloa hotels (I stayed at the Marriott next door to your Hilton!) The flows at the hotel gotta be late-prehistoric, since I was convinced it was the 1859 flow at first.

If I were to build in one of the Zone 1 areas (I'd pick Ocean View on the south end of Mauna Loa) for sure I'd live in a house on wheels that was pointing downhill!

I'm reminder of what people did on the outer banks of NC a long time ago. The area gets regular storms that scour the drifting sands clean of any buildings not behind the first couple of sets of dunes.

Beautiful place with outstanding fishing and swimming. But if you built a house anywhere near the water you could expect to lose it come the first storm.

Their answer was to build small cottages on wooden skids. Come the fall they would use a bulldozer to drag the cottages behind the dunes and attach them to a large ship's anchor chain that was held down with large anchors deeply set so they wouldn't blow away. Come the spring they would drag them close to the water so they could be enjoyed. If there was enough warning the cottages were hauled in if a storm cropped up. If there wasn't sufficient time the little cottages, most smaller than 4m square, were expendable and cheap enough replace every few years if need be.

Perhaps what is needed is for people to have small, expendable cottages that can be skidded off to safety when lava threatens.

Insurance companies do not expect to last forever so one of the questions they ask is "what percentage of clients in this category would drive us bankrupt if they made claims tomorrow?" It is likely that the companies decided too many claims would be made if houses in *any* Zone 1 area were affected whereas in the next zone it will take a catastrophic flow to do damage to enough properties to send the insurer bankrupt. Such huge flows do happen though; within the past few hundred years the Sicilian city of Catania (and many towns closer to the volcano) was devastated by such flows from Etna. The insurance rates for Zone 1 may simply come out so high that home owners are better off saving up to bail themselves out.

By MadScientist (not verified) on 12 Aug 2009 #permalink

You make an interesting point. While insurance companies can and do buy insurance for catastrophic losses, it may be that the current economic environment is causing people to rethink a lot of their previous assumptions. While insurance companies could still make money insuring people on a volcano, the upstream insurers decided the risk of mass claims was unacceptable.