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All Contents © 2017The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Kimberly Lankford, Contributing Editor
| September 2017
After the devastating hurricanes in Texas and Florida, residents are now assessing the damage, contacting their insurers, and starting on the long process of physical and financial recovery. If you were affected by Hurricane Harvey or Hurricane Irma, here is 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 the 10 things you need to know 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 was from flooding and will be covered if you had flood insurance, such as through the FloodSmart.gov National Flood Insurance Program. 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. Also see Lessons From the Floods for more information about how flooding affected Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and other Midwestern towns, as well as what types of damages were and were not covered by insurance.
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 next several months as cars with flood damage enter the market; such damage could pose major safety risks. For more information about resources to help you identify whether a used car has undisclosed flood damage, see After a Hurricane, Beware Flooded Cars for Sale.
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. For more information, see What You Need to Know About Homeowners Insurance in Hurricane-Prone States.
See the Texas Hurricane Center and Florida’s Hurricane Irma Disaster Resources for information about emergency housing, medical and financial assistance from a variety of nonprofits and government agencies. You may also be able to get financial assistance from FEMA.gov if you don’t have insurance. Type 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 Make Your Insurer Pay for strategies that helped people get their claims paid after Hurricane Katrina. Also see the “Managing the Post-Storm Insurance Claims Filing Process” consumer alert, important contact information and other resources at the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation’s Hurricane Season Resources page.
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 the Texas Department of Insurance’s Disaster Assistance Mobile Unit Locations and Help After Harvey resources. Also see Florida's Hurricane Irma Insurance Resource page and call the state’s insurance consumer helpline (877-693-5236; 850-413-3089) for more information about filing a claim and protecting yourself from scams.
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 Texas Department of Insurance
and the Florida Department of Financial Services. Also see the
National Association of Insurance Commissioners' insurance department map for contact information in other states.
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