OKLAHOMA CITY — Insurers are boosting the cost of earthquake coverage anywhere from 4 to 300 percent depending on the policy, as they brace for a catastrophic quake, state officials said during a meeting Tuesday.

Insurance companies are struggling to fix the probability of a large quake in a state rattled nearly every day by small-scale temblors, said Joe Woods, vice president of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

Small companies are prepared to handle small claims, said Woods, whose group represents nearly one-third of Oklahoma's insurers, including many serving rural communities.

"But they’re scared to death that they’re going to lose 25 homes," he said. "It would eat up premiums of the last 20 years to pay for those 25 homes.”

Nearly 1 in 10 Oklahoma homeowners carries earthquake insurance — a number on par with California. Just a handful of carriers hold more than half of those policies.

Insurers report collecting far more money than they're paying out, but a big earthquake could tip the scales quickly.

While other parts of the country are accustomed to the ground shaking — and insurers in those places have a better handle on risk — Oklahoma’s temblors are relatively new.

Earthquakes here started increasing rapidly in number less than a decade ago and are tied to the popular oil and gas industry practice of injecting wastewater into the ground.

Of 5,859 quakes that Oklahoma recorded in 2015, nearly 94 percent originated in 10 central Oklahoma counties, said state Insurance Commissioner John Doak.

“Consumers really need to understand that with frequency typically comes severity,” he said.

From 2010 to 2015, as thousands of earthquakes shook the state, insurers collected $76.4 million from jittery policyholders.

In return, they paid out just $3.1 million in claims, said Brian Gabbert, chief of market regulation for the state Insurance Department.

The majority of those 208 claims involved payments of less than $5,000.

Banks and mortgage companies don’t require earthquake coverage, which typically comes with a high deductible and is more geared toward protecting against catastrophic loss than cosmetic damage.

Doak said such policies typically cost between $30 and $50 per year for a $100,000 home, depending on the deductible.

“We’re starting to see these jumps (in rates) which is causing us to want to take an extra look under the hood,” he said. “I think it’s prudent and wise to hit the pause button and understand where our market is going to protect Oklahoma consumers.”

Paul Martin, a state affairs director with the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies, said it isn't surprising that a handful of insurers write half the policies.

Oklahomans who want earthquake coverage typically call their agent and bundle it with their homeowners’ insurance. “I think it’s just a natural progression,” he said.

State officials said 119 insurers offer earthquake coverage in Oklahoma. State Farm, Farmers, USAA, Liberty Mutual, Travelers, Lexington and AAA write the majority of the policies.

Protecting against earthquakes is "very high risk," said Martin, whose group represents many of the most well-known insurers.

Unlike a house fire — which is traumatic to one family — earthquakes can cause widespread loss and cost billions of dollars.

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com

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