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CARACAS, Venezuela-The Venezuelan government estimates it will cost at least $81 million to rebuild damaged property and infrastructure in Sucre, a state in eastern Venezuela that was severely damaged by a July 9 earthquake.
The earthquake, which measured 6.9 on the Richter scale, killed 78 people according to local government figures released last week and was the strongest Venezuelan earthquake in 30 years.
Insured losses are expected to be much lower than the economic losses. The worst damage has been inflicted on low-income family dwellings and public buildings, many of which may not be insured.
By contrast, Venezuela's oil industry, which is heavily insured, has adhered to tough earthquake loss prevention measures and suffered little damage.
"This is a very poor region of Venezuela so we don't expect many important losses," Alberto Sosa Schlageter, president of Caracas-based Seguros la Seguridad, Venezuela's largest insurer, said of Sucre.
The extent of the damage was only just becoming known last week, though, and losses are expected to rise.
"We are only just beginning to get the full picture. We heard today that a fish cannery in the area has been 75% damaged. That will be a few million dollars for the insurers. There could be much more," said Eduardo Benavides, manager at Caracas-based broker Sedgwick Venezuela, a subsidiary of Sedgwick P.L.C.
The most affected areas were along Venezuela's Caribbean coast, about 290 miles east of the Caracas, the nation's capital. The state capital Cumana and the town of Cariaco, some 29 miles east of Cumana, suffered the worst of the damage together with other towns on the coast, including Mariguitar, San Antonio del Golfo and Casanay.
An aftershock of magnitude 4.4 was registered some hours after the main earthquake. This was followed by more than 300 minor aftershocks over the following week. The port town of Puerto Sucre was hit by three small tsunamis after the main shock, which compounded earthquake damage in the region.
Highways were blocked by landslides and cracks in the roads, while gas, electricity and water utilities failed in the affected regions just after the main shock.
The most spectacular commercial damage in Cumana was the flattening of an eight-story office block, the Edificio Miramar. It was known locally as the Seguros la Seguridad building, because it housed the local offices of the Venezuelan insurer.
But Mr. Sosa explained that his company only rented office space in the building. "We just have a small office of 200 square meters. We neither own the building nor insure it," he said.
Eleven corpses were dragged out of the Miramar building's ruins, but another seven bodies may have remained buried under the rubble as of last Thursday.
The Mirimar building was constructed in 1980, just two years before Venezuela brought in a new, stricter building code.
"The buildings which have come down seem to have been built prior to the 1982 code," said Jose Grases, professor of earthquake engineering at Universidad Central de Venezuela in Caracas and vp of the Tokyo-based International Assn. of Earthquake Engineers.
Mr. Grases said that, in general, commercial and industrial buildings in Venezuela adhere to the building codes, which were designed with the country's earthquake risk in mind.
But public buildings remain a problem because local governments have been reluctant to spend their budgets on reinforcing them.
Two schools were flattened in the town of Cariaco, killing 22 high school students in one, Liceo Raimundo Centeno. This school had been slightly damaged in an earlier earthquake.
"We inspected the school in 1974 and recommended repairs," said Mr. Grases, who added that the authorities did not act on the recommendations.
A large number of local government employees in Cumana called in sick last week, afraid to go to work in offices that had been damaged or weakened in the July 9 temblor.
In contrast to the lack of attention to public buildings, earthquake vigilance is very strict in Venezuela's all-important oil industry. Venezuela is one of the United States' premier oil suppliers.
"The whole thing is very carefully looked at. You have earthquake insurance. The oil industry has always been very careful about insurance," said Alirio Parra, a former minister of energy and mines.
The Puerto la Cruz oil refinery, located close to the area damaged by the earthquake and operated by Corpoven, a division of the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela, or PDVSA, was reinforced 10 years ago to enable it to sustain earthquake shocks. Other oil installations such as tanks and pipelines were also reinforced.
"We found that they were too weak for the ground motions expected during an earthquake," said Mr. Grases, who participated in the oil industry's earthquake survey.
One of the greatest oil industry exposures to earthquake hazard was deemed to be oil storage tanks and other vertical vessels at refinery centers. Rupture of these carried a great pollution risk as well as the financial losses. The solution was to use earthquake resistance specifications developed in New Zealand for milk storage tanks.
"New Zealand has milk, not oil, but it has suffered a lot of damage to tanks. The New Zealand criteria are more stringent than the American Petroleum Institute's in the U.S. It is an excellent code for thin metallic walls and has been working very well in Venezuela," said Mr. Grases.
Earthquake insurance is voluntary in Venezuela, but most industrial and commercial enterprises carry it, said Sedgwick's Mr. Benavides.
An estimated 104 billion bolivars ($2.1 billion) of premiums are generated annually from earthquake insurance, though this excludes the coverage purchased by the oil industry.
The state oil company PDVSA pays an estimated $10 million to $20 million annually in total insurance premiums.
Mr. Benavides said there has been a growing consciousness of the Venezuelan earthquake risk in the international insurance market over the last few years.
La Seguridad's Mr. Sosa said that for insurers, earthquake exposures are concentrated in the area around Caracas, where 30% to 40% of the country's population lives, as well as the cities of Barquismento, Valencia, Puerto la Cruz and Maracaibo.
"The highest earthquake risks are in the Andes, but the insurance risk is not high in terms of concentration," Mr. Sosa added.
The July 9 earthquake occurred just 20 days before the 30th anniversary of a large earthquake that devastated a large part of Caracas in 1967.
But Mr. Grases claimed the Sucre temblor had been predicted. The prophet was a Russian seismologist and member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Keiles Barok.
"He wrote a letter six years ago to the president (of Venezuela) saying that a large earthquake should be expected in the region of Sucre. We wanted to write to Barok to ask him to explain his theory because we had similar views," said Mr. Grases. But Mr. Barok was killed in a helicopter accident, while the letter, which was received by the then-President Carlos Andres Perez, was filed and ignored. President Perez was impeached in 1994 for alleged embezzlement of state funds.