What To Do After a Tornado or Other Natural Disaster

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When any sort of natural disaster hits, it can be terrifying. Once it has passed, though, victims are often left wondering what they need to do to pick up the pieces. Is there anything they need to do in filing their insurance claims to make sure that they will get paid soon and as much as possible? This is especially important for those whose houses are destroyed and who have lost everything.

The first thing you should do, of course, is contact your insurance agent or company. This should be done as soon after the danger passes as possible. Whenever you speak to a representative of you insurance company, or communicate in any other way, you should keep a log of when and what you spoke about, and what the outcome of the conversation was (for example, is someone going to be coming to inspect the damage? Do you need to provide any documentation? When will they follow up with you or vice versa?).

Even though it may be traumatic, you need to be prepared to discuss the extent and severity of the damage you have suffered. If possible, try to document your damage. Photographs and videos are a great idea, but making a list of items that were damaged by the tornado, earthquake, flood, hurricane, or other natural disaster will eventually be necessary. Do not discard any damaged property until your insurance adjuster has had a chance to take a look at things. If they do not see it, it is as though it did not exist. If someone is going to come out to take a look at your property, always try to be present for those inspections so you know what they looked at and can be sure that they do not miss anything. It may also be wise to take photographs at the time of the inspection in case there is a discrepancy between the adjuster's findings and your own recollection.

While you wait for the insurance company to process your claim, you may need to return to your damaged home (if it is still standing/livable). You will also need to take steps to make sure that any personal property is not further damaged by continuing exposure to the elements. If possible, make temporary repairs to any buildings to prevent further damage to the property and the possessions inside. Avoid making permanent repairs until your insurance company tells you it is okay to do so and/or sends you the money with which to make those repairs. In either event, be sure to keep your receipts and document any other expenses associated with the repairs, whether temporary or permanent.

Although you may not have time prior to your initial phone call with the insurance company, you should still review your insurance policy and become familiar with its coverage and terms. Unfortunately, after natural disasters of any sort, it is all too common for the insurance company to become overwhelmed with claims and fall short on paying reimbursements the policy says the insurance company is obligated to cover. Be sure you know what kinds of events are covered under your policy and whether there are any special rules relating to those types of occurrences. If you believe the insurance company is not paying for something that should be a covered claim, you may need to contact an attorney to ensure you are getting the money you deserve.

Once your insurance company has given you the okay, you should move forward with making permanent repairs or rebuilding. Although you will want to hold off on making these repairs until after the damage has been assessed by the insurance company, once given the okay you will want to make these repairs as soon as possible to mitigate further damage which may not be covered by your insurance policy. But, beware: this is often the point at which unscrupulous contractors take advantage of victims just wanting to put their lives back together. Be sure to use local, licensed, bonded, and insured contractors. Again, keep a log of your communications with the contractor and document the repair work as frequently as possible. Ask for and check the contractor's references. Always be sure that any agreement is documented in writing; not just the first contract to hire the contractor, but any agreements for changes that might come later. Also, never pay the contractor in advance. The contractor should be aware of the way in which insurance claims are handled and be prepared to accept payment as it comes in from the insurance company. On the other hand, you should not attempt to use this opportunity to make those improvements to your property that you had been putting off for lack of funds. Insurance companies will only replace damaged items of the same type and quality. Trying to make upgrades with the insurance company's money will not only slow down your claims process, it could lead to a denial of your claim and even criminal charges for insurance fraud.

Another thing to be wary of is the overly helpful contractor who wants to interpret your insurance policy for you. Chances are, the contractor is not qualified to do that. If you need a professional opinion, be sure to speak with an independent claims professional, instead. Never let a contractor interpret your insurance policy language or persuade you that they know better than the adjuster, even if they brag about getting more money for someone else. Their interference could end up in having your claim denied or reduced. Another good source for extra guidance is your attorney.

If your property was not insured, or your claim is denied for some reason, you will probably want to contact your local Red Cross or FEMA Disaster Recovery Center for assistance. This might include temporary shelter and food.

Another thing many fail to consider after a disaster are the various benefits and entitlements offered to the victims of such occurrences. If you had insurance, your provider may be able to obtain special discounts for you through their partnerships with other businesses. You may also have insurance benefits to cover additional living expenses (ALE). You may also be entitled to disaster tax deductions at the end of the year, and in some types of natural disasters there are other forms of financial assistance available from both state-run and private organizations. Ask your attorney, your insurance adjuster, and your insurance company about these programs and be prepared to do a little research on your own. For those situations where insurance and other programs fall short, you may also be able to obtain disaster loans to help pay for the rebuilding process and living expenses while you get back on your feet.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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