Beware Hurricane Irene, Beware Insurance Troubles in the Wake

In the wake of disasters, some survivors battle to get their homes restored.

August 26, 2011, 5:17 PM

Aug. 26, 2011 — -- 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.

To follow Hurricane Irene coverage live with ABC News on Twitter, click here.

Before the Hurricane: Policing Your Policy

"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.

"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, to help your inventory on the website

After the Hurricane: Making -- and Defending -- Your Claim

"You should immediately start a notebook documenting contacts with your insurance company," the CFA said. "List the date, time and a brief description of the exchange. If you need to complain later, this information will be vital."

Rogan said homeowners can check with their state insurance departments to make sure anyone that claims to be an adjuster is licensed. More on fraud schemes later.

In 2006, two State Farm employees came forward in an ABC News exclusive investigative report by Brian Ross to claim the insurance company buried reports on wind damage in favor of ones that emphasized flood damage in order to reduce the company's financial burden on payouts. A lawyer for State Farm denied the allegations at the time.

Still, the CFA said if consumers suspect the "potential abuse," they should contact their U.S. representatives and senators with the information.

If you still feel you've been wronged, Rogan said residents can take their case to their state's insurance department for review.

"We have a room full of people that do nothing but that," Rogan said of the New Jersey insurance department.

The CFA also recommends considering hiring an attorney, sharing the notes you took when dealing with the insurance company and potentially taking them to court.

"In addition to an award covering your claim, if your treatment was particularly bad, the courts in many states will allow additional compensation when the insurance company acted in 'bad faith,'" the CFA said.

Beware Home Repair Fraudsters

When homeowners return to damaged homes and start picking up the pieces, often building contractors, plumbers and electricians will offer their services. But not all of these contractors are to be trusted and, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, home repair fraud "increases exponentially following a major storm."

As the Virginia State Police said, "By taking a few simple precautions to guard against the fraudsters, cheaters and crooks who often show up ready to take advantage of someone else's misfortune, citizens can protect themselves."

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