If you've been through a natural disaster, such as a hurricane, earthquake or flood, you may feel as if your whole world has been turned upside down. Recovery may take time, especially if you need to rebuild a home. But, the sooner you begin the process, the sooner you can get your life back to normal. The following information will help you as you begin the recovery process.
Gathering important documents and assessing your losses are the first steps after a property loss. These tips can help:
- Move quickly to replace important documents that were lost or destroyed - your driver's license, auto registration, insurance policies, credit cards, titles to deeds, wills, and other important documents. You may need these documents as you prepare to file insurance claims.
- Start saving receipts for all your expenses, or at least keeping a record of them. These will help both in filing an insurance claim and in claiming losses when you file your income tax return.
- Make lists of all property that was damaged or destroyed. These will prove useful for your own purposes, and essential for filing insurance claims or seeking financial assistance. Document as much of the damage as you can with photographs or a videotape. Try to include what you can of the following information:
- brand name, description, model, year, and serial or ID number
- the place and the date or year you bought it and the price
- any documentation such as a sales slip, canceled check, warranty, or correspondence with the manufacturer or retailer
- description of the damage and what caused it (For example, a sofa may have been soaked by a flood, or by water sprayed over it by firemen putting out a fire.)
- any photographs that show the item before and after it was damaged
If you are insured
Your homeowner's policy may cover much of your loss, but keep in mind that policies vary. Your policy may cover damage to your home, loss of personal possessions, and your living expenses if your house is unlivable due to damage.
Here are the steps you will need to take in filing a claim:
- Contact your insurance company right away. If possible, have your policy numbers ready when you call. They may have special procedures set up if many people were affected by one disaster. Follow up your call with a letter, and keep a copy.
- Find out if your insurance company will pay for living expenses. If so, ask if this will reduce the amount you ultimately receive for damages.
- Begin salvaging. Don't wait for the agent or claims adjuster, but do take photos. Keep damaged materials as proof of loss.
- File your claim. Do it as quickly as possible, as claims are generally handled in the order received. File a claim even if you are not specifically covered for this type of disaster, as you may be covered for secondary effects, such as the fire and water damage resulting from an earthquake.
- Make it easy for the insurance company personnel to find you and your property. Leave phone numbers and email addresses where claims adjusters can reach you.
- Work with claims adjusters. Give them your list of damages, and note if the list isn't complete. Take notes on all conversations with the adjuster, and write follow-up letters to the company to confirm what was said.
- Consider bringing in additional or independent adjusters if you are not satisfied with your insurance company's damage estimates. But remember that these measures will delay settlement and cost you extra money.
- Settle the claim. But don't be in too big a hurry to do so, and don't accept settlement checks as final. You may need to file additional claims later, for example, if your house is looted.
If you are not insured
Relief aid may also be available from your local city or county government, private lenders, American Red Cross disaster relief, and other volunteer organizations. The following are potential sources of aid following a disaster:
- Red Cross - Assistance for immediate repairs and living expenses is available from the American Red Cross when no other immediate assistance is available.
- Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) - FEMA helps uninsured and underinsured homeowners and renters with grants when a natural disaster has been declared.
- Small Business Administration (SBA) - The SBA's Disaster Loan program offers low-interest loans for the rehabilitation of homes and small businesses after a disaster.
- Commercial and federal land banks offer moderately low interest rates on loans for repairs and improvements.
Tax relief and legal assistance
- Tax relief - You may be eligible for significant tax deductions or refunds if you have suffered a property loss. The rules are complicated, so it's a good idea to work with a tax adviser or other qualified professional.
- Legal assistance - Check with your installation’s Armed Forces Legal Assistance Office for help with legal matters.
Repairing and rebuilding your home
It can be stressful to return home after a disaster. But getting your home into livable condition will put you on the right track to getting life back to normal.
- If you have to leave your home, let the local police know it will be unoccupied. You may want to secure your home to avoid vandalism or looting by boarding up the windows.
- Let others know where you will be if you have to leave your home. Let your family, friends, insurance company, mortgage company, employer, post office, delivery services, fire and police departments, and utility companies know where you will be.
- If it's safe to go back in your home, try to collect necessities and important papers such as insurance information, medication, eyeglasses, and hearing aids. You may also want to collect valuables such as credit cards, bank books, cash, and jewelry. If possible, save important documents from your computer.
- Salvage what you can. Fire and water damage restoration businesses can help, but check with your insurance company to see who'll be paying for these services. Don't throw away damaged goods until you've made a complete inventory. If you need to get rid of something that's dangerous, make a record of it.
- Make necessary immediate repairs. To prevent further damage, you may need to patch the roof, board up windows, or tear down a damaged chimney. The Red Cross and other volunteer organizations may be able to help you obtain materials or provide volunteers to help with the work.
- Find a reputable contractor. Get several estimates, compare notes with neighbors, and check the credentials of contractors you are considering. Get contracts in writing and make sure repairs will conform to local building codes.
- Rebuild. Don't pay more than twenty percent down. You can then pay periodically as the work progresses. Don't make your final payment until the job is done and you are satisfied with it. Don't sign over an insurance settlement check to a contractor.