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The destruction caused by Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma are estimated to cost between $150 billion and $200 billion, according to a CNBC report.
As people try to make their way back to their homes, an influx of flood claims, with more than 100,000 expected be filed in the aftermath of the hurricanes, is expected to slow down the payout process.
While it's vital to be prepared before a storm hits, it's equally important to understand your rights as you begin to rebuild and recover. Insurance claims differ from state to state and understanding your rights will allow you to better plan your next steps.
For instance, in New York, insurance providers have 15 business days to acknowledge that they've received a claim and another 15 days to begin a proof of loss investigation to determine how much damage was done to the home. Whereas, in the state of Florida, the insurer is given 14 days to respond to a claim and then another 30 to begin an investigation.
According to a 2015 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) survey, 60 percent of Americans aren't prepared for these natural disasters of any kind. And only 39 percent have an emergency plan despite the fact that 80 percent live in counties that are vulnerable to extreme weather.
Whether you own or rent, it's imperative that you plan early to ensure that you can quickly and safely return to normalcy. Here, experts offer tips on how to protect yourself and your home before and after natural disasters.
If you need to evacuate your home, be sure to have a plan in place. Knowing where you're going, how to stay in contact with family and friends, and knowing the safety of your pets will make the situation less stressful.
Annmarie Camp, executive vice president at Chubb Personal Risk Services, recommends keeping a go-bag that includes legal documents, birth certificates, marriage license, and financial papers. Even taking pictures of your insurance policy and contact information is a good idea. Your survival kit should include things like a flashlight, a portable radio, batteries, canned food, a fire extinguisher, bottled water, blankets, clothing, and cash.
Allison Bethell, a real estate investor and analyst at FitSmallBusiness.com recommends boarding up all windows if you don't have storm shutters. If you live in a single family home or town home, placing sandbags in front of the entryway prevents water from getting in. Also, Bethell suggests throwing away all perishable food. Close and lock all windows and make sure to take your pets with you. Unplug all appliances, and move furniture away from windows and doors.
If you have a balcony or porch, remove anything that's not secured. In the event of a home flood, Bethell advises contacting a public adjuster before calling your insurance company as adjusters regularly work with insurance companies and know all the guidelines and timeframes.
In the case of a prolonged power outage, consider buying a power strip with a cigarette plug. This allows you to charge any device in your car without running down the battery. Solar panel chargers are another trusty option. Be sure that you keep it in a window, so that it receives sunlight every morning and is ready in case of an emergency.
If you own your home, it's your responsibility to perform recovery work to protect your property from further damage. Putting up tarps, removing wet drywall and carpeting to prevent mold, boarding up openings, installing fencing where necessary, and securing your belongings is essential in the recovery process, according to Carl Gross, vice president & CAO of Globe Midwest Adjuster International. When you're ready to rebuild, hire a contractor but beware of unscrupulous scammers.
If a contractor asks you to sign a contract for non-emergency services, this is a red flag. Don't sign anything until you have assessed the scope of your property damage and received an estimate of reconstruction pricing with your insurance company.
When it's safe to enter your home again, evaluate the damage and start taking pictures and keeping receipts of any damage-related cleanup. Camp recommends reporting your claim to your insurance carrier as soon as possible. Upon entering the home, begin separating damaged from undamaged property – but don't immediately discard anything – and create a detailed list of your damaged contents. When estimating losses, Gross says to avoid relying solely on your historical records. Instead, secure replacement cost estimates for a more accurate cost analysis. Keep a log of all activities and save all receipts including those for property replacement and related expenses. The more information and detail you provide your insurance carrier, the quicker your claim can be paid.
Lastly, Gross suggests finding and hiring an expert. "The insurance adjuster sent by your carrier to evaluate the damages is working exclusively for the insurance company, not for you. It's your responsibility to document and submit your claim," he says. Hiring a professional that understands the insurance claim process ensures a fair and expedited settlement.
One of the biggest misconceptions among homeowners is that they don't live in a flood zone. "Everybody lives in a flood zone, but not everybody is required to purchase flood insurance," according to Camp. Because it's always a risk, Camp encourages homeowners to speak with their independent agent or broker about the policy. In preferred flood zone areas, an average flood policy is about $400 a year and the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) administered by the government provides affordable flood insurance for homeowners.
When a major catastrophe occurs, most homeowners are concerned with the value of their homes and neglect the value of the contents inside of them. If you have recently upgraded appliances or fixtures, or have unfinished jobs on your property, it's important to take them into consideration. For example, not addressing ongoing landscaping issues could become problematic during a storm. "Seventy-five percent of trees that fall during a weather event suffer from some pre-existing and often correctable condition that makes them vulnerable," says Camp. Furthermore, homeowners should reinforce windows, doors, and skylights with appropriate shutters if they're in a hurricane's path. Also, make sure that your garage door is closed and secured to protect your valuables and mitigate replacement cost.
A Proof of Loss (POL) claim is usually required within sixty (60) days of the incident. However, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has waived this rule and is allowing hurricane victims up to a year to file for losses. Meanwhile, eligible policyholders can receive financial assistance before adjusters inspect for damages. Government resources, such as Disaster Assistance, are the quickest way to receive assistance from FEMA, where it typically takes up to 48-hours to hear from an adjuster. However, severe storms and an overwhelming amount of requests can cause delays.
A range of emergencies could facilitate the need to evacuate your home. In some instances, you may have days to prepare, while other circumstances call for an immediate evacuation. Taking a proactive approach ensures that you can evacuate quickly and safely, no matter the situation.
CORRECTION: Annmarie Camp is an executive vice president at Chubb Personal Risk Services. Her company's name was incorrect in an earlier version of this article.