While hurricanes are considerate enough to announce their intentions prior to arrival, earthquakes arrive practically unannounced. Although seismologists are able to provide general forecasts about the probability of a seismic event along a given fault line, a system accurate enough to predict a particular event in time to allow an evacuation of an at-risk area remains elusive. "Looking at earthquake is important because it is the forgotten hazard right now," says Andy Castaldi, who is head of the Catastrophe and Perils Division at the Americas Hub for Swiss Re Americas Holdings. "What happens when we have a Katrina-like event for earthquakes?"

Fortunately, America's cities haven't endured a major earthquake since 1994, when the Northridge Earthquake struck California. Even though the quake was a relatively modest 6.7 in magnitude, it was strong enough to collapse freeways and was costly to insurers. According to numbers from the Insurance Information Institute, adjusted for inflation, the Northridge quake caused $20 billion in damage and $12.5 billion in insured losses, ranking only behind Hurricanes Katrina and Andrew as the most costly natural disaster of the past 30 years.

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