As Americans up and down the eastern seaboard are boarding up windows and hoarding supplies ahead of Hurricane Irene's impending wrath, those who will be hit the hardest may not have considered the storm could be just the beginning of their troubles.
Historically, hurricanes in the U.S. -- like Isabel in 2003 and Katrina in 2005 -- have left homes destroyed and some residents in long, bitter battles with everyone from opportunistic small-time scammers to the federal government to get their lives back to normal.
Today the Consumer Federation of America announced it expects "several hundred thousand" insurance claims to be made in Irene's wake, likely exceeding $6 billion in payouts. To make sure you get what you deserve out of your policy, insurance experts told ABC News what homeowners can do to best protect themselves and their homes when it comes to insurance. Check out their advice below.
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Know Your Policy The most common problem homeowners run into, according to Ed Rogan of the New Jersey Department of Banking and Insurance, is not knowing exactly what their policy covers.
"Most people don't realize that their standard homeowners policy does not cover flood insurance," Rogan said. Instead, people must join the federal government's National Flood Insurance Program under a separate policy which can be purchased through their local insurance agent after a 30-day waiting period -- too late for anyone who doesn't have it already.
When a hurricane hits, damage is divided into two categories: wind damage and flood damage. Basic homeowners' insurance protects against wind damage, but only the federal program protects against flood damage.
Keep Your Policy Safe. If you're evacuating ahead of the hurricane, keep a copy of your insurance policy with you "so that you can refer to it after the storm, if needed," the Consumer Federation of America said in a statement.
Inventory Your Possessions. Before you evacuate, make an inventory -- or even take pictures -- of your home, inside and out.
"The more detail you include, the easier it will be for your insurance company to evaluate your loss," the National Association of Insurance Commissioners said in a consumer alert. "Once you have made your inventory... email the information to family or friends living out of the hurricane threat or to your insurance agent."
The National Association of Insurance Commissioners even offers a free smartphone application, myHome Scr.APP.book, to help your inventory on the website www.insureuonline.org.
Take More Pictures, File Your Claim Quickly. Once you return to your home, be sure that one of the first things you do is take pictures of all the damage and keep a record. Like the "before" pictures, having photographic proof of your damage helps the insurance company evaluate your claim. Also, the CFA said most insurance companies work on a first-come-first-serve basis, so the quicker you file a claim, the quicker you may be compensated.
Chronicle Your Interactions With the Insurance Company. The CFA said one of the smartest things homeowners can do when filing a claim is to be sure and document every interaction with the insurance company.