This summer residents of Texas, Florida, and Louisiana were ordered to evacuate their homes because of impending hurricanes, and the news was flooded with images of cars jamming the highways, followed days later by images of damage to homes and businesses. Earlier this year, residents of Northern California evacuated their homes because of wildfires, which inspired similar stories.
No one likes to think of the possibility of being forced out of their home, but the reality is that extreme weather can happen anywhere – witness the several thousand people in Ohio who lost power for the better part of a week because of leftover wind and rain from Hurricane Ike – even that far inland.
If you live in a place likely to be evacuated because of extreme weather, here are some things you should know about evacuation and insurance.
Before You Leave
First, make sure your family matters are in order, kids and pets are packed and ready to go, and you have a final destination planned.
Then, find your insurance information and take it with you. One way to make this easy is to keep a zip-lock bag with important documents (home and auto insurance policies, birth certificates, passports) in a safe place at all times. That way, you can grab the bag as you leave. You should always have the direct phone number to your insurance company with you, especially if you work with an independent agent, because a) if they’re local, they’re evacuating, too, and b) they may represent several companies.
If you’re one of those incredibly prepared people who keep an updated household inventory on file, bring a copy with you. If not, make a list of your household belongings (quickly), or grab the camera or video camera and make a video inventory to take with you.
It’s also important to keep paying your premiums while you are evacuated. While many insurance companies will be somewhat lenient, staying current with your payments will help ensure that your claim is processed in a timely manner.
If you cannot pay, be sure to call your insurance company, be honest, and let them help you. They will usually work something out.
If you’ve already evacuated and have no access to your home, but know that there is damage, call your insurance company immediately. Even if the damage is minor, the sooner they know about it, the sooner the process to fix it can be started. Be aware, however, that disaster claims are handled in order of seriousness, not on a first-come-first-served basis. In the event of large disasters like hurricanes, the homes with the worst damage will be handled first.
While getting the claim process started is important, a secondary reason for immediate contact with your insurer is that your policy likely includes a loss-of-use benefit. This benefit usually covers motels, meals, and other basic living expenses if you cannot live in your home while repairs are being made, or if you are not allowed to return home.
While you can alert your insurance company that a claim will be forthcoming, no active work can progress until a claim representative can document the damage to your home, which means waiting as patiently as possible. During this time, if you haven’t already made an inventory, do so.
After You Return
When you are once again allowed access to your home, grab a camera or video camera and document all the damage you can see, taking notes as well. If more damage is found later, document that in the same way.
It’s your responsibility to prevent future damage, so make as many immediate temporary repairs as possible, like putting tarps over leaking roofs, but be certain to save all the receipts. Do not make any permanent repairs until your insurance company has authorized them, however, or you may not be wholly reimbursed.
Be aware that you’ll have to work with your claims representative to determine how damage was caused, especially in cases like hurricanes where the initial windstorms lead to flooding. This is because your basic homeowners insurance will cover wind and hail damage, including things like a tree falling through the roof, but only flood insurance covers flood damage.
The most important part of the process is to be patient. Snapping at the claims representative will not help you, and may cause them to hold up your paperwork. Help where you can, be firm when necessary, but otherwise, understand that when it comes to post-disaster insurance, everyone from your city is dealing with the same thing, and everything will take time.