Just days before the joyous celebration of Christmas, Jacqui McIntosh and her husband were abruptly awakened at 2:34 a.m., only to be thrust into a nightmarish scene. Their once-stable home violently quaked, causing their bed to split apart, sending them crashing towards the center. Rio Dell, California, a tight-knit community of 3,400 near Oregon, had just experienced a devastating 6.4 magnitude earthquake, leaving a trail of destruction and shattered lives in its wake.
In the aftermath of the terrifying event, McIntosh vividly recalls the chaos that ensued. Hastily making their way downstairs once the tremors subsided, they were met with the pungent scent of natural gas permeating the air—a consequence of a ruptured gas line. Neighbors cried out in distress, and the blaring earthquake alerts on their phones served as a haunting reminder of the danger that surrounded them.
Reflecting on the events of that fateful day, tears well up in McIntosh’s eyes as she recounts her husband’s words, “I really didn’t think we were going to make it.” The earthquake, which struck on December 20, 2022, claimed two lives and forced hundreds of individuals out of their homes. For McIntosh, the impact was particularly devastating as her house was wrenched from its foundation, shifting a staggering 22 inches to the east, rendering it uninhabitable.
With the inspectors deeming their home too dangerous to live in, the McIntoshes found themselves in an unimaginable situation. Six months have passed, yet they continue to bear the weight of a mortgage on a house that would require an estimated $150,000 to repair—a sum they cannot afford. Describing her home as worthless, McIntosh laments the missed opportunity of finding a buyer just before the earthquake struck, leaving her with what feels like an oversized lawn ornament that threatens to push her into bankruptcy.
The McIntosh family is not alone in grappling with the aftermath of the Rio Dell earthquake. Countless others in the city find themselves in a similar predicament, navigating the arduous path to recovery. Sadly, they are among the millions of Californians without earthquake insurance to aid in covering the costly repairs. Additionally, a substantial portion of the affected population resides in older homes that have not been retrofitted to meet the current seismic building codes, further exacerbating the risks they face.
The destruction witnessed in Rio Dell serves as a stark reminder of the peril Californians face. Living in a state renowned for experiencing more damaging earthquakes than any other, many individuals find themselves unable or unwilling to take the necessary precautions that could mitigate the destruction and subsequent financial ruin. “It’s a gamble to not have it,” warns Rio Dell City Manager Kyle Knopp.
An alarming statistic further highlights the vulnerability of California’s housing landscape: a staggering 90% of homes in the state lack earthquake insurance, according to Glenn Pomeroy, CEO of the California Earthquake Authority—an independent nonprofit insurer created by the state to provide coverage for earthquakes. This persistent risk is willingly shouldered by many Californians residing in some of the nation’s most expensive housing markets, all while living atop a network of active fault lines.
Brian Ferguson, spokesperson for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, emphasizes the magnitude of the threat, stating, “We do understand that a large-scale earthquake in one of our populated the most significant threat we encounter in California is a major earthquake in populated areas, surpassing the risks posed by wildfires or recent floods.”
When an incident is not officially recognized as a disaster.
Rio Dell finds itself situated in the most seismically active part of California, near the Mendocino Triple
Rio Dell Struggles with Dual Quakes: Federal Aid Eludes Earthquake-Stricken Community
Adding to the misery that befell Rio Dell, a significant second earthquake measuring 5.4 on the Richter scale struck on New Year’s Day. The consecutive quakes uprooted approximately 300 residents and left 125 dwelling units labeled as red-tagged, with even more being classified as yellow-tagged or moderately damaged, according to City Manager Knopp.
However, despite the extensive damage, the quakes did not receive a federal disaster declaration, resulting in the unavailability of federal grants for affected residents to aid in home repairs, Knopp explained.
The reasons behind this decision are multifaceted. FEMA stated that California did not request an emergency declaration in this particular case. The Governor’s Office of Emergency Services also confirmed that they did not request one due to the “disaster not meeting the federal requirements for an emergency declaration.” Nevertheless, they assured their collaboration with local officials to maximize available assistance through state programs.
FEMA considers various factors when evaluating whether to approve a state’s emergency request, including assessing the severity of the disaster. This evaluation involves examining the extent of damage and the population size, determining if the cost of aid meets per-capita thresholds. Knopp voiced his frustration, saying, “If this had happened in Montecito, Beverly Hills, or Malibu, it would have received a federal declaration almost immediately due to the high monetary value involved.”
California is filled with buildings vulnerable to damage.
Without insurance coverage, numerous homeowners whose properties were deemed uninhabitable had to bear the burden of repair costs independently or resort to loans to fund the necessary fixes. One individual familiar with the devastation firsthand is Rio Dell Water Superintendent Randy Jensen. When the December quake jolted him awake, Jensen’s immediate concern was inspecting the city’s water storage tanks to ensure they remained intact, disregarding the damage inflicted on his own home. Hastily maneuvering through the wreckage and shattered aquariums with his beloved fish, Jensen discovered that his house, built in 1962, had been severely fractured, with walls buckling and the structure nearly split in two.
Deemed hazardous to occupy, Jensen allocated his savings towards making temporary reinforcements to make it habitable. Among all the homes in his neighborhood, Jensen’s suffered the most extensive damage. Reflecting on the circumstances, he wondered, “You think to yourself, what did I do? Why is it that this place alone had to bear the brunt of such devastation?
City Manager Knopp revealed that, to his knowledge, only one damaged home in Rio Dell had earthquake insurance coverage. Many homeowners mistakenly assume that their homeowner’s policy or federal assistance will provide adequate coverage in such situations. However, as the residents of Humboldt County are experiencing, that is not the case.
When Nature Strikes: The Harsh Reality of Being Evicted by Disaster
Even if a quake triggers a federal disaster declaration, those with substantial damage may not receive sufficient financial aid to rebuild their severely impacted homes, according to Glenn Pomeroy, CEO of the California Earthquake Authority. FEMA, when involved, can offer housing assistance in the form of temporary accommodations or home repairs, with a maximum assistance limit of $41,000 per household. However, this amount falls short of compensating for all the losses incurred in the wake of a disaster.
In contrast, earthquake insurance policies can cover the cost of rebuilding homes, depending on the policy and deductible amount, while also addressing the replacement of lost personal belongings. However, this level of security comes at a considerable cost, with premiums reaching thousands of dollars annually, particularly for older homes situated in high-risk areas near the San Andreas Fault or other fault lines in California.
Some aid efforts have been initiated, as California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency for Humboldt County, where Rio Dell is located, facilitating access to services for local governments.