Personal Finance > Your Home
Ten tips if disaster strikes
May 11, 2000: 5:54 a.m. ET

Homeowners beware: Tornado season is on us, and hurricanes are on the way.
By Staff Writer Alex Frew McMillan
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NEW YORK (CNNfn) - Summertime doesn't always mean the living is easy -- recent hot weather may have much of the country thinking about Memorial Day, cookouts and hitting the beach, but it also means hurricane season is fast approaching.

Hurricanes and tornadoes are by far the most destructive catastrophes in the United States. The two combined accounted for two-thirds of the damage from large-scale disasters over the past two decades, according to the Insurance Services Office.

graphicBecause of their large scale and potent destructiveness, five of the six most costly disasters in American history have been hurricanes. The season normally runs June through November, though early hot weather suggests an early start to the season, too.

This will likely be an above-average season for hurricanes, according to the Climate Prediction Center. That's thanks to the weather phenomenon known as La Nina, which causes greater tropical rainfall than normal.

The center expects at least 11 tropical storms this year, seven or more of which will become hurricanes. Three of those will become major hurricanes, according to a forecast released Wednesday by the center, a part of the National Weather Service.

And May is the month when the most tornadoes hit, and smack in the middle of tornado season. Roughly a quarter of the 1,200 U.S. twisters per year touch down in May, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. April, May and June are by far the heaviest tornado months, though twisters happen year-round.

Cutting a swath of disaster

The threat of disaster looms large for homeowners. Only fire causes more losses than hurricanes and tornadoes, which dwarf even flood and earthquake damage. And much of the country is at risk.

Both coasts are at risk from hurricanes, which can have a surprising reach -- Hurricane Floyd last year devastated the Carolinas, but the $1.8 billion in damage reached as far north as New Jersey and New York.

Twisters are most common in Texas, Florida, Illinois, Oklahoma, Iowa, Kansas, North Carolina and Nebraska. But they can occur all over the U.S. mainland and up to Maine and Vermont.

So even areas that aren't typically catastrophe-prone get occasional fallout from a disaster. "It's not really a matter of ifs. It's a matter of when," said Jeanne Salvatore, vice president of consumer affairs for the Insurance Information Institute, or III. "And it only takes one to really have a mess."

Here are 10 steps to help prepare for catastrophes, according to the Institute and the American Homeowners Association (AHA), and how to respond if you're unlucky enough to have your home caught up in one.

The calm before the storm

1. Prepare early. Insurers typically have a 30-day waiting period before new insurance will kick in. So it's best to check if you have sufficient coverage now. "By the time you hear about a hurricane watch, it's probably too late," said AHA president Richard Roll.

2. Make sure your coverage is sufficient. With many homes increasing in value, it's worth evaluating once a year whether you have sufficient coverage, Roll said. Homeowners may need to purchase extra coverage for wind and storm damage. Flood insurance is normally not covered in your homeowner's policy, but the National Flood Insurance Program ensures that homeowners can buy it.

3. Make an inventory. To help with the claims-filing process, many insurers recommend that renters and homeowners make an inventory of their possessions and keep a copy of it off-site. A home video is a particularly effective way of keeping inventory, according to insurance experts. Note brand names and model numbers. Keep emergency phone numbers for your insurance agent, insurance company and the Red Cross with the inventory.

If a hurricane or tornado strikes

4. Make necessary temporary repairs. Plug any holes and gaps and keep the receipts -- they're refundable under your insurance policy. But any insurance settlement will combine the cost of temporary repairs with the overall settlement, so bear in mind that excessive temporary costs will effectively mean you pay more for permanent repairs.

5. Call your insurance agent or company. Report the damages and find out whether you are covered, the amount of your deductible, the amount of your coverage and what records the insurer wants you to compile. "The sooner they know, the sooner you'll get paid," Salvatore said.

6. Save receipts for living expenses. Your insurer typically covers unusual costs such as for hotel rooms, food, emergency supplies and transportation that you incur because of a disaster. Normally, according to the III, your insurance will cover 20 percent of the coverage of your total policy. That is, your insurer will pay up to $20,000 in expenses if your home is insured for $100,000. The amount is above and beyond any cost of repairs.

7. Prepare for the adjuster. Faced with a big number of claims, adjusters normally resort to a sort of "triage" after a large-scale disaster -- worst first. So don't expect immediate attention if your damage is minor. If they are overwhelmed, adjusters may also pay a quick visit and return for a more complete evaluation. The more records and notes you have, the quicker your claim gets processed. Your insurer may also send you a "proof of loss" form to fill out before a visit from the adjuster.

8. Make a list of damaged items. If possible, note the brand names and models of any lost or damaged equipment. Photographing the damage is also a good idea. Work from memory if you don't have a written record or an inventory, noting purchase dates, prices and so on. The III suggests trying to picture what was in each room. Do not throw away damaged items -- the adjuster will want to inspect them.

9. Make a list of property damage. The adjuster will want to inspect any structural problems, cracks, missing tiles and the like. Your insurance company will likely also pay for an inspection of the electrical system. Though your insurer will provide an adjuster for free, you can also hire your own adjuster. Such "public adjusters" charge a fee and may take as much as 15 percent of your settlement. That isn't covered by your insurance. Avoid door-to-door solicitations and check qualifications with your state insurance department if you decide to go that route.

10. Get bids for the repairs. The more detailed the bid, the better. Make sure the bids come from licensed contractors and reliable companies. They should break down the repairs line-by-line.

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