What to do after a natural disaster

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There are few things in life as devastating as being affected by a natural disaster. From wildfires to hurricanes, natural disasters can cause widespread damage. Knowing how to start the recovery from a natural disaster can make a difference in how quickly you are able to rebuild your life and return to normalcy.

Whether you are a first-time homeowner or have lived in your home for decades, you probably want to be able to afford to rebuild or repair your home when disaster strikes. Understanding the scope of your insurance policy is an important step in preparing for natural disasters. Homeowners insurance policies, for example, do not include flood coverage — which could put you at risk if you live in an area where hurricanes or floods are common. Talking to your agent to review your homeowners insurance policy may be prudent. Many homeowners insurance policies have exclusions and some coverages may need to be added by endorsement or by purchasing a separate policy entirely. Knowing what your homeowners insurance policy does and does not cover is one of the most important steps to take to prepare for a natural disaster.

Having a plan in place before a natural disaster strikes is always a good idea. In the aftermath, it can be hard to know what to do. When it comes to the damage to your property, Bankrate has created a list of steps that you can follow to begin the recovery process after a natural disaster.

1. Make sure you and your loved ones are safe

Your first consideration after a disaster is the health and safety of you and your loved ones. If you are evacuating prior to a disaster, stay together if you are able. Having an emergency kit for every person in your family and knowing where to locate irreplaceable papers and valuables is essential. You may want to consider keeping them in a fire-safe box that can be easily grabbed.

A battery powered or hand-cranked radio is an excellent resource to help you locate local shelters and medical care so that you know where to go if you are leaving in a hurry. And do not forget to make a plan for your pets. If it is not safe for you to stay in your home, it is likely not safe for them. However, not all shelters will accept animals, so make a list beforehand of shelters that cater to pets. Just like for your human family members, you should create an emergency kit for pets with food and other necessities.

2. Assess damages and file a claim

Once you and your loved ones are safe and you are able to get back to your home, you will need to assess the damages. Take a notebook or cell phone with you so that you can locate and keep track of damaged areas. Taking photos may also be a good idea. The type of damage your home could suffer will depend on what kind of natural disaster has happened. Hurricanes are likely to cause roof damage, for example, while earthquakes can cause cracks and damage to your walls or even your foundation.

You may want to file an insurance claim as quickly as you can after a natural disaster. Since there are likely to be a large number of claims, the sooner you file, the sooner you may be able to start repairs. Submit photos and documentation with your claim. Even if you do not know the extent of the damage, you can still call your insurance company to notify them that your home is likely damaged. Your company will assign a claims adjuster to your file who will conduct a more thorough examination of the property.

3. Make temporary repairs and find a contractor

Depending on the situation at your property, you may need to make temporary repairs to secure it or eliminate the possibility of further damage. For example, holes in the roof may require you to apply a tarp to keep out rain, or a door blown off its hinges may need to be secured to keep the home safe from thieves. If possible, get several quotes for any necessary repairs, and beware of contractors who suddenly raise their prices while the demand is high.

If you are going to be away from the home at a shelter or hotel, remove valuable items if you can. Unoccupied homes, even if they are locked, can fall prey to thieves who frequent areas where there has been a natural disaster. Valuable items may also be at risk of damage if there is the possibility of flooding during or after the disaster.

4. Keep track of expenses

Handle emergency repairs as soon as you are able to, but be sure to keep all receipts and invoices given to you by construction companies. Have a safe place where you can store these until they are needed by your insurer and discuss any steps you have already taken if an insurance adjuster comes to survey your home.

One thing you can do when you are preparing for an emergency is to talk to an agent to find out if you have coverage for emergency repairs, as well as for living expenses while you are not at home. The portion of your coverage that may pay for these costs is called additional living expenses coverage, and can help you pay for replacement accommodations, like a hotel, and other expenses that may occur while you are displaced.

5. Ask for help if you need it

Natural disasters are stressful and difficult, but you are not alone. Government organizations such as FEMA will often set up local centers in your area after a disaster, as will non-profits such as the Red Cross. You may be able to find help with childcare, the costs of repair and cleanup and even mental health care.

Even if your disaster is local and the federal government does not step in, there may still be options for help. You may be able to seek out local groups that are offering support and services after disasters.

Other resources that may be helpful to you include disasterassistance.gov, which will direct you to the closest FEMA Disaster Recovery Center (DRC), and the website of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which runs a hotline that can help if you are separated from your child during an emergency. FEMA also has a mobile app that you can download when preparing for disaster which provides a wealth of real-time disaster information.

Frequently asked questions

How soon after a natural disaster should I file an insurance claim?

Your first responsibility after a natural disaster is to make sure that you and your loved ones are safe. Once you have done that, begin the claims process so that it will be handled as quickly and efficiently as possible. If you are not able to evaluate the damage to your home or you are at a shelter, you may find insurance representatives that have been deployed to the area. They may be able to help you start the claims process even before you have seen your property.

Can I lessen the risk of damage to my property from a natural disaster?

You may be able to protect your home from natural disaster damage to a degree. In areas prone to hurricanes, for example, it may be possible to purchase a roof that can withstand high winds. In areas prone to fires, you may be required by your homeowners association to carefully manage your landscaping to prevent fires from getting close to your home. To lessen the damage from interior fires, you could install an automatic sprinkler system in your home. You may be able to mitigate your risk of earthquake damage by working with a contractor to retrofit your home. Understanding the building codes in your area and keeping your home in good condition may be your best defense to lessen potential damage.

How much insurance do I need to cover me for a natural disaster?

Determining how much insurance you need is a personal process. Talking with a licensed agent is likely the best way to determine the right amount of coverage for your property. If you live in an area where natural disasters are common, you may want to consider replacement cost coverage, rather than actual cash value coverage, since it does not take depreciation into account and will better help you to rebuild or repair your home after a disaster.

Written by
Mary Van Keuren
Insurance Contributor
Mary Van Keuren has written for insurance domains such as Bankrate.com, Coverage.com and Thesimpledollar.com for the past five years, specializing in home and auto insurance. She has also written extensively for consumer websites including reviews.com and myslumberyard.com. Prior to that, she worked as a writer in academia for several decades.
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