LOS ANGELES – More than $421 million in claims have been filed since deadly mudslides tore through the coastal community of Montecito during extremely heavy January rains, California's insurance commissioner said Monday.
Insurers have received more than 2,000 claims for residential and commercial losses, commissioner Dave Jones announced. Those include $388 million for residential personal property, $27.2 million for commercial property and $6.7 million for auto and other lines of insurance.
Recently burned by California's largest recorded wildfire, the hillsides of Montecito northwest of Los Angeles could not absorb the rainstorm with an epic downpour of nearly an inch (2.5 centimeters) in 15 minutes early on Jan. 9.
"Once the rains hit, the water runs down, begins to take mud with it, and before you know it you have a 30 or 35-foot high wall of mud demolishing Montecito," Jones said.
Twenty-one people were killed and two remain missing.
The mudslide insurance claims come on top of California wildfire claims that topped $12 billion in 2017, making it the most expensive series of fires in state history, Jones said.
That exceeds the total insurance claims from the top 10 previously most costly wildfires in California. Most of last year's claims were connected to Southern California's fires in December and October's devastating blazes in wine country north of San Francisco.
Jones said he fears the staggering number of insurance claims represent a "new normal" for California.
"It used to be we could talk about a wildfire season. Now that's simply not the case. Wildfires are year-round, and Californians need to protect themselves accordingly," he warned.
In Montecito, 1,415 residences were damaged and 107 were destroyed, in some cases swept completely off their foundations, Jones said. Five commercial properties were demolished and 235 others suffered damage when torrents of water flowed down hills carrying mud, boulders and debris.
Jones recalled the experience of touring the devastation zone as "extraordinarily chilling."
The commissioner predicted that the $421 million total will climb as additional claims are made and existing ones are adjusted.
Few residents in Montecito, with 3,200 households, had flood or mudslide insurance prior to the destruction. But the Department of Insurance has instructed insurers to honor claims if they had fire coverage, Jones said.
That's because the debris flow's "proximate cause" was the enormous Thomas fire that scorched a huge swath of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties starting in December and loosened hillsides that became vulnerable to mudslides weeks later.
Jones said insurers have enough reserves to pay the massive claims. But he said the fires and subsequent debris flows may prompt them to re-evaluate the fire risk and raise premiums, especially for California homes in high-risk areas.
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