Can you insure against the unspeakable, the unimaginable?

#420 in a series of true experiences in real estate
February 2003, Hills Newspapers

It turns out that I’ve got terrorism insurance. Isn’t that reassuring?

No kidding, I just got a short letter from Farmers Insurance telling me that coverage for acts of terrorism is already included in my insurance policy. My coverage began November 26, 2002, they said, but the letter is dated Valentine’s Day this year.

I don’t know why the delay. I hadn’t asked about terrorism coverage; it hadn’t occurred to me that it might exist. I wonder, did someone at Farmers see a rare opportunity to present the company as kindly and caring? Is that why I got the notice?

To be sure, there aren’t many chances for insurance companies to look good these days. It used to be that they vaunted, to policyholders like me, a lengthy list of losses they would cover. But these days, we are informed of policy exclusions and limitations — everything the insurers will not pay.

Farmers’ is pledging some of its own money for terrorism-related claims but, naturally, they’ve limited their exposure. Only “certified acts” would be covered, and 90% of those, the letter explains, would be paid by the United States government. In other words, we would be paying for our losses ourselves.

The last of the 5 sentences in the letter states that none of the premium I pay is attributable to terrorism coverage, so I guess Farmers, with their usual largess, is picking up any associated costs. Sure.

I wonder if our claims will be honored if we don’t use duct tape and plastic sheeting to close ourselves inside our houses? What if we are negligent and don’t take every precaution to protect ourselves? Would our claims be rejected?

That duct tape and plastic thing is really something, isn’t it? Anet and I talked over the recommendation after Anet saw a segment on “Good Morning America” on how to do it. A crew was sent to someone’s house to find a room suitable for sealing.

At that house, the laundry room was favored because it had no windows and, while small, it was large enough to contain the family of four who lived there. In this space, only the openings for the door, electrical outlets and dryer vent would have to be covered.

A demonstration was provided showing how the plastic was cut to fit. All openings were then prepped with blue painter’s tape to prevent stickier duct tape from damaging the painted surfaces. Duct tape would be used to hang the plastic but not until the actual sealing of the room.

The experts explained that if a dirty bomb was detected, and if the family didn’t die outright, they should go inside the laundry room, tape the plastic in place, and wait. There would be enough air inside for the family to survive for 6 hours, at least. By that time, natural air currents were expected to have driven away the poison, and the family could come out.

I asked Anet if supplies were recommended, food and things. “No, not in the laundry room,” she said. But within a few days of that TV segment, the press reported that we should all be stockpiling supplies in our houses and our cars, the same sorts of things we would need in case of an earthquake or other disaster – batteries, food and water, radio, extra clothes, etc.

But not, according to Anet, gas masks. (Anet never misses the Sunday news forums on TV, and she told me that the Homeland Security man said no gas masks are necessary at this time.)

All of this potential disaster news got Anet and me to talking about disaster preparedness in our youth. We compared notes on fire and air raid drills at school, and found that they were much the same in Illinois where she grew up as they were for me in California.

In the event of a fire, we were instructed to walk, quietly and orderly, out to the schoolyard to stand with our class until dismissed.

Upon hearing the air raid siren, we had to duck under our desks and cover our heads with our arms. This was to protect us from flying glass, our teachers told us. No one talked about what might protect us in the classroom from a bomb.

At home (at least at some), there were underground bomb shelters in the backyards.

Neither of our families had one, but we heard about people who secretly built them, secretly because they didn’t want neighbors to know. The neighbors might clamor to use them themselves.

I don’t remember any drill on what to do if there was an earthquake, but in the Midwest, they have tornadoes, and thus, tornado drills. While retreating to the underside of your desk was the practice for bombs, for tornados, it was different.

Anet says that she and the other kids moved quickly to the windowless hallways. They opened their lockers and stuck their heads inside. Really. Everyone remained with heads in lockers until the all-clear signal, the ring of the recess bell.

Then, just as we did in California after our disaster drills, the kids went out onto the playground and resumed regular kid life.

I just remembered that one of the items we’re supposed to have in our disaster supply kit is our insurance policy.

I suppose that mine should now include the letter from Farmers just in case I ever have to prove that I am covered for acts of certifiable terrorism.

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