No matter where you live, you and your property are vulnerable to natural disasters. If you live in the most populous states—Texas, Florida, California or New York—your level of risk is relatively high and the level of state disaster preparedness is relatively low. By one estimate, Texas is the most vulnerable state in the union, with the smallest disaster budget per capita and the highest odds of suffering natural disasters, including hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes.
“Hurricane Rita cost Texas and Louisiana over $9 billion in damages and was responsible for 117 deaths,” said Texas-based attorney Steve Mostyn, whose law firm, Mostyn Law, specializes in hurricane insurance litigation. “Storms like Hurricane Rita have taught us that preparedness is key to minimizing your losses or even avoiding them altogether when a natural disaster strikes.”
What you know, how you act and what you document before and immediately after a disaster will shape your ability to restore your property and get on with your life.
When conditions are normal, periodically document the status of your property with photos and video, and store those files on a cloud service. While you’re at it, upload digital copies of essential documents—mortgage or rental agreements, auto and homeowner policies, inventory of personal property or video (if any), etc. If the originals become inaccessible, damaged or lost, those files will help you deal with post-disaster living. Back up all files on a USB flash drive that you keep in a safe, accessible place.
Review your insurance policies to understand what is covered and what isn’t. Are you adequately covered in case of flood, wind, or hail? Do your policies insure you for the replacement value of your property?
Pay close attention to sections like “Duties After Loss” and “Exclusions.” Failure to follow the provisions may enable the insurer to deny you payment, and not knowing about key circumstances that your policy doesn’t cover may leave you high and dry when you need coverage the most.
When a storm, quake or flood looms, your first need is for shelter. Depending on the crisis, you may need to evacuate or to hunker down where you are. News about how the disaster affects mobility, public services and health is vital, so monitor local media to stay informed.
If you haven’t pre-stocked emergency supplies (water, food, first-aid supplies, etc.), grab whatever essentials you can safely carry and bring them to the shelter. At minimum, you’ll want at least three days supply of water for your household—one gallon per person, per day. Also, fill up your gas tank for your car as there can be long lines for gas both before and after a storm with very little supply.
Follow Your Plan
Reaching loved ones, locating pets and getting help may hinge on whether or not you made a plan in calmer times. Everyone in your household should know what to do, where to go, who to contact and the best way to reach them when disaster strikes. Organize vital contact information in a document you can share with each individual person and make sure you also store it on the cloud so that people can access it from smartphones or a public computer if they lose the original copy.
Remain Cautious and Alert
As the crisis abates and you venture out of your shelter, beware of unexpected hazards and local conditions.
Avoid flooded areas, including any buildings surrounded by water, which may conceal downed power lines or other dangers. Do not drink or cook with tap water until you confirm it is safe. Use flashlights, not candles, to see in the dark. Wear protective clothing and take care when cleaning up.
Inspect and Preserve
Be sure to document property damage with photos or video after the natural disaster passes and make notes detailing what you find. As much as possible, leave all damage as it is to provide evidence of your losses.
Report your insurance claim as soon as possible in order to “get in line” for an adjuster to come to your home. Many people file a claim for damage after a storm so you might be waiting awhile depending on the number of adjusters. Make detailed records of any interactions you have with your insurer, including the names of who you talk to, the dates and the times.
Save receipts and other evidence that documents any temporary steps you take to prevent further damage or injury.
Stand Up for Yourself
Once an adjuster inspects your property for the insurance company, make sure to look at the estimate to see if it covers all damages you reported. If your insurance company’s estimates do not fairly account for the extent of damage and what it will cost to repair, ask reputable local contractors to estimate what they would charge to do the work.
If you suspect the terms of your coverage are not being honored or that the claim is being mishandled, seek legal counsel. It is seldom easy to get a fair shake from insurance companies, but having informed second opinions and smart legal advice can make it possible.
“There’s no easier way for insurance companies to avoid paying claims than to argue that a storm didn’t cause the damage in the first place,” says Mostyn. “Homeowners have to be very careful about ensuring they get an accurate, fair report.”
Finally, when repairs begin, beware of unscrupulous third-party contractors who often show up in the wake of disasters, intent on scamming homeowners.
In short: Do your homework and put in the hours on disaster preparedness before the storm. Prepare to challenge your insurer afterward. Get backup if you need it. And never settle for anything less than what you are owed.