East Coast homeowners continue to sift through the soggy remains of last month’s Hurricane Irene and the country recovers from other natural disasters. Meanwhile, insurance companies are fielding a deluge of their own: storm damage insurance claims.

To speed the settlement process, insurance companies say it’s important for homeowners to understand what’s covered, the costs involved, and how to respond to storm damage.

For starters, most people don’t realize the standard homeowners’ policy may cover such perils as wind damage, fire, lightning, tornadoes and hail. But not flooding. 

Floods are the number one natural hazard in the United States. Yet, only about 17 percent of homeowners nationwide buy flood insurance, says Loretta Worters, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute in New York.

You can buy a separate National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) policy from your insurance agent. It is offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The NFIP provides coverage up to $250,000 for the structure of the home and $100,000 for its contents and costs less than $600 a year, on average, FEMA reports. For comparison, the average homeowner’s policy is about $800 a year for coverage between $50,000 and $300,000, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

“We tell people to buy flood insurance and people don’t do it,” Worters says. “It’s something everyone needs even if not in a flood-prone area of the country, as evidenced by Hurricane Irene.”

Flooding of vehicles is usually covered under the comprehensive section of a standard auto insurance policy. But not everyone takes this optional coverage, especially those with older cars, Worters says.

Homeowners also may not know their policies generally provide coverage for additional living expenses such as temporary housing or other daily necessities. Some policies may even cover food spoilage and dry cleaning.

It’s no wonder homeowners are confused about what’s included in their storm damage insurance policies. “Insurance contracts are, by necessity, complicated,” says Jim Whittle, assistant general counsel and chief claims counselor for the American Insurance Association. “There are a lot of provisions to clarify limits, deductibles, conditions that need to be met.”

Consumers should read the policy; not just throw it in a drawer, he adds.

Ask your insurance agent if you don’t understand the provisions. For example, does the insurance policy cover replacement value, the full current cost of the item, or actual cash value, which figures in depreciation?

Here are 10 steps to take immediately after a storm has damaged your home:

  • File a claim as soon as possible. Flood insurance claims have to be filed within 60 days and most insurance companies allow up to a year from the date of disaster for homeowners insurance claims. Insurers have 30 days to respond, Worters explains.
  • Identify damage to your home and other structures, such as a garage, tool shed or in-ground swimming pool.
  • Conduct a home inventory of the contents of your home and the damage. Provide a detailed description of the items, including approximate date of purchase and cost to replace or repair. Think room by room and don’t forget what’s in closets and drawers, the Insurance Information Institute advises. The Insurance Information Institute offers free downloadable software to conduct such an inventory, www.KnowYourStuff.org. Free apps for the purpose are offered by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC.org), along with several insurers.
  • Take photographs or videotape the damage.
  • Get the electrical system checked.
  • Pump out excess water.
  • Make temporary repairs to protect your property from further damage: cover broken windows, damaged roofs and walls. Remember to use protective eyewear and gloves. “We’ve gotten a lot of rain recently. If there are [broken] windows or holes, it’ll put more rain in the house,” Worters says.
  • Wait to throw away damaged goods until after the insurance adjuster has visited.
  • Don’t do extensive, permanent repairs until the claims adjuster has assessed the damage and approved a repair cost, according to the III.
  • Keep receipts of the repairs and other expenses to file with the insurance company.
The Insurance Information Institute offers more tips for homeowners following a natural disaster at www.iii.org.

Consumer research on catastrophes is available from the American Insurance Association, www.aiadc.org. Most insurance companies also offer online catastrophe information, including steps for processing a storm damage insurance claim.

For more information about storm damage insurance, visit www.floodsmart.gov

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