Oct. 5, 2022, 10:50 a.m. EDT

If Hurricane Ian destroyed your home, take these critical first steps for disaster relief and insurance

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By Andrew Keshner

The full financial and human price of Hurricane Ian’s destruction is still unknown, days after it lashed Florida, and now with the Carolinas fresh off its wrath.

But even with the immediate search-and-rescue missions still happening , experts say there are already steps people can take to begin their long road to financial recovery.

By Sunday evening, the remnants of Ian were drifting north toward Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania after it made landfall again Friday afternoon near Georgetown, S.C. Back in Florida, about 700,000 people remained without power as of Sunday, whole areas of the state’s Gulf Coast are reeling and the death toll is climbing.

By Sunday, at least 68 people were confirmed dead, with 61 in Florida, the Associated Press reported .

Hurricane Ian is “likely to rank among the worst in the nation’s history,” President Joe Biden said Friday . “It’s going to take months, years to rebuild.”

Insurance losses could range from $25 billion to $40 billion, according to an early estimate from Fitch Ratings. The price could increase depending on what damage Ian inflicts in the Carolina, the ratings company noted.

Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the country’s costliest hurricane, resulted in $65 billion in insured losses at the time, according to the Insurance Information Institute. That’s $89.6 billion in 2021 dollars, said the research organization comprised of insurance-industry companies.

The second-costliest storm — for now at least — is Hurricane Ida. The hurricane plowed through southeastern Louisiana last year and resulted in an insured loss of $36 billion, the Insurance Information Institute data showed.

But big-picture insurer costs might matter very little to the many families who have seen their homes leveled, their cars completely waterlogged and their lives completely upended. What will matter is getting every last penny to start the slow recovery process — all the more critical when everyday life is already so expensive at a time of hot inflation.

That’s why it’s important to understand the insurance coverage and claims process that lays ahead.

Wind damage is covered by standard homeowners, renters and business insurance policies, the Insurance Information Institute said . A renter’s policy would cover their possessions while a landlord’s policy would cover the structure, it noted.

Flood insurance is a different policy, and private-passenger vehicles flooded by water or damaged by wind are covered by the “optional comprehensive” portions of auto insurance, the Insurance Information Institute noted. There are 1.6 million Florida residents with flood insurance, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Determining where wind damage stops and flood damage begins is a recurring challenge that’s about to re-emerge, said Clay Morrison, president of the National Association of Public Insurance Adjusters.

Wind-damage coverage can be contained in homeowners policies, but sometimes that’s not the case, he said. People can hire public adjusters to help them amass paperwork and evidence for an insurance claim.

“The claim settlement issues on this event will go on for some years,” said Morrison, president of the public adjuster firm, Morrison & Morrison, with its headquarters near Houston and another office in Florida’s Panhandle.

Whatever happens next, here’s advice on what to do now

Start with photos, video and documentation. Freshly chronicling the full extent of the damage is crucial, Morrison said. That can be done with pictures and videos of everything, including images showing how high the water has reached, plus photo or video showing surrounding damage near a person’s property. That will help insurers see a full picture of the storm’s intensity at a certain location.

Hold on to original copies of photos, documents and receipts while giving copies to insurance company adjusters and staff, Morrison advised. Be as comprehensive as possible pointing out damage and potential damage when explaining the extent of damage to insurance adjusters.

Also, keep a diary of dates and time spent corresponding on insurance coverage and when a company’s adjusters or staff inspect the damage, write down their comments on the damage, he said.

“If, down the road, you have difficulty, you want to tell the carrier for the time period, you have documents and dates from when the claim started,” he said. “A diary of everything that has occurred so far in the claim needs to be kept.”

Do not throw away any destroyed or damaged items until after the insurance company adjuster has inspected it, Morrison said. If there are plans to throw out items afterwards, check first with the adjuster and the company, he added.

FEMA advises flood insurance policyholders to report the loss to their carrier as soon as possible — and ask about advance payments. If people need help finding their carrier, FEMA says they can call 877-336-2627. Floodsmart.gov is also a resource to explain initial steps on a claim, FEMA noted.

Another place to begin the recovery process is: DisasterAssistance.gov or 800-621-3362, according to FEMA.

Do the best at damage control. If there are holes in houses or other damage that keeps exposing insured property to the elements, people “have to take reasonable steps to prevent additional damage,” Morrison said. That could be tarps or temporary sealing methods, he said.

This doesn’t mean ignoring authorities and getting to a house that’s still in a dangerous area, and it doesn’t mean attempting dangerous home fixes.

“Reasonable” is the operative word, Morrison said. “You have to show good faith efforts to at least to prevent further damage.”

What to expect for people hiring outside help. Many families just work directly with their insurance companies to submit a claim, get a check and start moving on with their lives. But sometimes the task may be too heavy, complicated and draining.

“Typically, public adjusters come into the process when an insured has experienced a loss and is overwhelmed,” Morrison said.

If someone eyes outside help, Morrison said they should look for people with years of experience and remember a general rate is around 10% of the claim amount.

States set the rates and those fees may vary above and below, but 10% is roughly the common price point, he said. In Florida, for example, public adjusters during declared states of emergency have their fees capped at 10% of claim value.

The 10% cap is in place “for one year after the declaration for initial claims for damages caused by that disaster,” according to the Florida Department of Financial Services’ Division of Consumer Services, which notes fees can be negotiable.

When emergencies have not been declared, public adjusters can charge a maximum of 20% of the claim, according to the division and the Florida Association of Public Insurance Adjusters. The organization, whose members are licensed and bonded, advises potential customers to make sure an adjuster’s license and appointment are up to date with the state of Florida.

For low-income households and at-risk communities, the challenges can be even greater. Wealthier families may have the cash and rainy-day resources to figure out next steps with insurance claims and government paperwork, that’s not the case for everyone, said Sarah Saadian, senior vice president of public policy and field organizing at the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

This applies for low-income families, but also some senior citizens and people with disabilities. “What happens is survivors with the greatest need face the greatest challenges in getting the resource they need to rebuild,” said Saadian, adding they may likely face unstable housing in the aftermath.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition leads the Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition, comprised of approximately 850 local, state and national organization that have learned how to help at-risk population in the aftermath of natural disasters.

One critical point to remember is the chance for free legal assistance in the bureaucracy connected to government disaster relief, she said. For example, in the cases where FEMA denies financial assistance, it may not be specific on the reasons for denial — but attorneys who have dealt with the disaster-recovery process will have experience knowing what extra information and documentation FEMA needs.(The agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

Florida has an array of legal assistance organizations and pro bono projects, according to the Florida Bar Foundation. Here’s another site: the National Disaster Legal Aid Resource Center, where people can begin their search for legal assistance.

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