Getting Organized After a Natural Disaster

The aftermath of a natural disaster can be overwhelming. You'll need to take many steps to get your home and your life back in order, and it can be difficult to cope. But getting organized after a disaster is important. You need to be able to stay in touch with friends and family, communicate with your insurance company and aid agencies, and replace important papers that may have been destroyed or lost.

Organizing and replacing important documents

Many people lose important papers or other essential items when their homes are severely damaged by a natural disaster. You may be able to wait awhile before you replace some documents, such as income tax records, but it's a good idea to replace others, such as your credit cards, as soon as possible.

It can be difficult to get organized after a disaster, especially if you don't have phone service. If your home or cell phone is not available after a disaster, you can ask an out-of-town relative or someone nearby who has phone service to act as a message center for you. This way you can leave a reliable call-back number for important business calls. Also, check with a local relief agency, shelter, or public library to see if telephones are available there.

Make a list of all of the essential documents that are missing or unrecoverable. These might include wills, titles to deeds, birth and marriage certificates, military discharge papers, mortgage agreements, passports, credit cards, stocks and bonds, income tax records, citizenship papers, and health insurance cards. Second, determine which items should be replaced immediately.

Here are some tips for replacing important documents:

  • Replace your driver's license, credit cards and ATM cards. If you've lost your license or ID as the result of a natural disaster, you can go to your state's department of motor vehicles and get a replacement license or ID card. For information to help you identify and contact your state's department of motor vehicle services, you can visit the Driver's License website. Get in touch with your bank or financial institution to replace your lost credit and ATM cards.
  • Get a copy of your insurance policy. If you do not have your insurance policy or identification card, contact your insurance company, your insurance broker, or your state insurance bureau to get a copy of it.
  • Replace your passport. Contact the Department of State to report a lost or stolen passport. The government requires that you do this immediately, and taking this step will also help to prevent identity theft.

Working with your insurance company

Call your insurance company as soon as possible. You may also want to contact the Federal Emergency Management Association at 800-621-FEMA or 800-621-3362 to start a claim. In addition to providing low-cost loans for rebuilding, FEMA provides funds for temporary housing, legal counseling, medical, dental, and transportation expenses for people who don't have insurance or who are underinsured.

The best thing you can do when working with an insurance company to settle a claim is to meticulously document everything. You may want to get a notebook with pockets or folders in which you can record your interactions with your insurance company and any important questions or information, as well as store receipts and other papers.

Write your policy number, your claim reference number, and your insurance agent's name and phone number at the front of your notebook. Every time you contact your insurance company, make a note of the date, time, the name of the person you talked to, and what you talked about.

You will probably have many questions for your insurance agent. Don't hesitate to ask questions.

You may want to ask the following:

  • What does my policy cover?
  • When can I expect to see my adjuster?
  • What is my deductible?
  • Should I arrange for contractors on my own or do I have to wait for prior approval?
  • If I cannot live in my home, does my policy cover the cost of staying in a hotel or renting an apartment?
  • Will my policy cover the cost of shrubs or trees that were lost as a result of the storm?
  • How long will it take to process my claim?
  • What are my next steps?
  • Is there anything else that's important for me to know that I haven't asked?

If possible, you should also:

  • Take photographs or videos of the damage inside and outside your home or ask a friend or family member to take these for you.
  • Take a room-by-room inventory and make a list of missing or damaged goods. Try to include brand names, year purchased, and receipts or other records that show proof of purchase. Your credit card company may be able to assist you with the details of your purchase history.
  • Avoid making any permanent repairs to your property until the damage has been assessed by your insurance company or a federal aid agency.
  • Keep receipts for any post-disaster expenses you have, such as buying plywood or tarps or staying in a hotel room. These will be helpful when you file your income tax return.

It may take several weeks before your claim is settled. Continue documenting the process and do not agree to a settlement if you are not satisfied that it's fair. Also do not sign anything that limits the company's future obligations. You might find structural or other damage months from now.

If you are not insured

Loans and grants may be available from FEMA and the Small Business Administration. Relief aid may also be available from your local city or county government, American Red Cross, and other volunteer organizations. The Army Emergency Relief, Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society and Air Force Aid Society can provide emergency loans to service members and their families. Watch TV or read the newspaper for announcements of available aid programs to help disaster victims in your area.


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