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All Contents © 2020The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Kimberly Lankford, Contributing Editor
| Updated September 2019
Three of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history were hurricanes that struck in 2017: Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Irma. With the 2019 hurricane season well underway, the southeastern United States in now under threat from Hurricane Dorian, which has the potential to do billions of dollars in wind and water damage.
If your home is affected by a hurricane, you can learn a lot from the experiences of past victims of natural disasters who had to assess the damage, contact their insurers, and start on the long process of physical and financial recovery after recent record hurricanes. Here’s how to get the money you deserve from your insurance company and ways to make the most of other assistance to fill in the gaps. Keep reading to learn more about hurricane insurance claims.
In general, damage caused by wind, wind-driven rain and water that comes into your home through the roof, windows, doors or holes in the walls is covered by homeowners insurance. But damage from flooding or water that rises from the bottom up—from the overflow of a body of water, for example, or a storm surge—is not covered. A lot of the damage in Houston from Hurricane Harvey was from flooding and was only covered if you had flood insurance, such as through the FloodSmart.gov National Flood Insurance Program or a private flood insurer. But even if you didn’t have flood insurance, it’s still worthwhile to contact your home insurance company to see whether some of your expenses will be covered, such as wind damage to your roof or the additional living expenses you incurred while you were out of your house. See Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Wind Damage vs. Flood Damage fact sheet.
If your car insurance includes comprehensive coverage (which insures against the type of physical damage not caused by an accident), then flooding would be covered. In many cases, the water damage can be so bad that the insurance company will declare the car a total loss and pay the claim for the value of the car (minus the deductible). Also, be careful if you’re buying a used car in the months following a major hurricane as vehicles with flood damage enter the market. Water-damaged cars can pose serious safety risks, from faulty air bags to compromised electrical systems.
Until a few years ago, many people in high-risk areas of Florida had to buy separate policies to cover windstorms. Now, more insurers are offering windstorm coverage in Florida as part of their homeowners policies, says Chris Heidrick, an independent insurance agent in Sanibel, Fla. But you may have a higher deductible for hurricane damage. For example, you may have a $500 deductible on most claims, but a deductible of 2% to 5% of your coverage amount for damages caused by a hurricane. In Texas, people in some coastal areas, such as Corpus Christi, may have three separate policies: homeowners insurance, separate hurricane coverage from the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association and a flood policy with the National Flood Insurance Program.
Most states’ emergency management agencies have information about other resources to help after a hurricane, such as emergency housing, medical and financial assistance from a variety of nonprofits and government agencies. Start by typing your address in the tool at DisasterAssistance.gov to find out about aid in your area, including money for living expenses and rebuilding. You can also get in-person help at a FEMA disaster recovery center. Look up the nearest one using the recovery center locator. You may also qualify for SBA Disaster Loan Assistance, a low-interest loan available for homeowners and renters to repair or replace damaged property. (Even though it’s offered by the U.S. Small Business Administration, you don’t need to be a business to qualify.) Also see links to the state emergency management agencies.
Even if a hurricane didn’t destroy your home, you may have some damage from fallen trees. If your tree damages a neighbor’s property—say, crushing a garage or fence—your neighbor should file a claim with his insurance company, which will generally pay to fix the damage. When a tree falls and doesn’t hit anything, insurance policies will typically pay just $500 to $1,000—or sometimes nothing—for the cleanup. See Your Tree, Your Neighbor’s Property: Whose Insurance Pays? for more information.
Most homeowners policies pay for additional living expenses—including rent, food and other costs—for up to a year while you’re unable to live in your home, or up to a certain percentage of your total coverage amount. This may be the first money you get from your insurance company before it determines how much to pay to rebuild your home. These living expenses can really add up if you’re out of your home for a while as you wait for your house to be rebuilt. Keep the receipts for reimbursement. Some insurers provide debit cards for these expenses.
Insurers usually want you to make temporary repairs, such as putting up a tarp, to stop any further damage to the house, even before an adjuster assesses the property. But take pictures before you make those temporary fixes. See the
National Association of Insurance Commissioner’s apps and other resources to help you document the damages. Also keep receipts of any supplies you had to purchase for repairs, which may be reimbursed by your insurer. See Rebuilding Your Home and Finances After Disaster Strikes for more information about how people whose homes were damaged by Hurricane Harvey in 2017 worked with their insurers and other organizations to recover physically and financially after the storm.
If you had a home inventory listing your possessions, and you kept it online or outside of your home, you’ll have a great head start when filing your claims. Otherwise, you may be able to piece together information that can help with your claim. Any photos you have of the rooms in your home can provide evidence to the insurer about items that were damaged. Also look for any receipts for valuable items. And take pictures after the hurricane but before removing debris so that you have some documentation that the items were damaged in the storm. See How to Get Your Insurer to Pay Your Claims to read about how people have pieced together inventories after tornados and water-damage claims—and what they wish they would have done differently.
The state insurance department generally has consumer protection staff in disaster areas to answer questions and help you contact your insurer. Many insurance companies also have mobile claims units on the ground to assist with filing a claim and to answer any questions. See your state’s emergency management agency for more information about where and when to find these mobile claims units after a disaster.
The state insurance department can help you with questions as you start to file your claim, and it can also step in if you’re having trouble contacting your insurer or getting your claim paid. Many insurance departments also set up special mediation programs to help resolve disputes between residents and their insurance companies after a major disaster. For more information, see the National Association of Insurance Commissioners' insurance department map for contact information in your state.