Hurricane Matthew: How to Deal With Damage Claims

The ABC News Fixer's tips for what to do now and how to get ready for next time.

ByABC News
October 12, 2016, 4:27 PM

THE ABC NEWS FIXER— -- In the wake of Hurricane Matthew, which claimed hundreds of lives in the Caribbean and more than 30 in the southern U.S., thousands of Americans will be faced with rebuilding their lives, beginning with their homes and businesses.

One of the first steps is contacting your insurance company and filing your claim. The Consumer Federation of America is cautioning homeowners to stay vigilant during the entire claims process, in order to get the most help possible.

“In the first few days, usually things go pretty well,” said J. Robert Hunter, a former Texas Insurance Commissioner who now works with CFA, referring to the teams of adjusters who swoop in after a big storm to cut emergency checks. “It’s after that, the trouble begins, when you start to adjust for the big claims.”

For example, some insurers make the homeowner pay a five percent “wind deductible,” which depletes their settlement, Hunter says. And some companies won’t pay the higher labor and materials costs that typically occur in regions hit by a big storm, leaving the consumer to make up the difference.

By now, if you’ve had damage you’ve probably called in your claim and gotten a claim number. Hang on to this number, and start a file noting every contact you make with your insurance company and adjuster, including the date, time and what was said.

Here are some more tips from the CFA:

- Keep all receipts for any emergency work you had to do to secure your home right after the storm, and any hotel stays or meals you needed if you couldn’t return home. Whether that gets reimbursed depends on your policy, so make sure you understand how much is covered and for how long.

- When the adjuster arrives, find out if they’re an employee of your insurance company or an independent adjuster. If they’re independent, ask for the name of the person they’ll be sending your claim information to at the insurance company. This trail of names may be helpful later.

- If you know a trusted local contractor, get your own estimate before the adjuster arrives so you’ll have a ballpark of what repairs are needed and what they’ll cost.

- As you create an inventory or what’s damaged or missing, remember that family and friends may have photos of your home that could be helpful in documenting what was lost.

- If your claim is denied or if it seems too low, ask the company to show you the exact wording in your policy that allowed them to do that. Maybe they’re correct, but maybe they’re relying on new language that you weren’t informed about.

- If you feel the settlement offer is unjustifiably low, find an executive in the insurance company’s customer relations (not claims) department and use your records to show why it’s unfair. If that doesn’t work, complain to your state’s insurance department. And if that doesn’t work, you might need to hire an attorney.

- Keep in mind that homeowner’s policies cover wind damage but not flooding. The federal government underwrites flood coverage separately through the National Flood Insurance Program. (And if an uprooted tree falls on your car, that’s under your comprehensive auto insurance coverage -- if you have it.)

One more caution from the Insurance Information Institute, an industry group: Temporary repairs are part of the whole settlement, so don’t spend too much on those. Beware of contractors who want a lot of money upfront or who give unusually low bids.

And finally, some homework for the rest of us. Before the next big storm, review your insurance policy. Take photos or video of your possessions now – it’ll make it easier to prove what you lost if the unthinkable happens.

If you don’t have flood insurance from the National Flood Insurance Program, consider getting it. Not only do regular homeowner’s policies not include flood coverage, but many insurance companies have clauses in their policies that say that even if you have storm damage to your home, if that damage is accompanied by flooding and you don’t have a flood policy, they don’t have to pay.

- The ABC News Fixer

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