Hurricane Irene Aftermath: Storm damage, homeowner’s insurance and your claims

Hurricane Irene hit the East Coast with a vengeance this past weekend, from Philadelphia to New Hope to the Jersey Shore and across the Delaware Valley.  So what’s a homeowner to do after the winds die down and the floodwaters recede?

Here in eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland, the post-storm clean-up is underway as homeowners return to their properties and assess the damages from Irene’s rampage.

As you assess your own property losses, MyPhillyLawyer attorney Todd Richman has some important tips to help you along the way as you deal with insurance companies and filing claims after the storm.

Trees lay toppled after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. Image credit: © iStockphoto.com/Elhenyo

Trees lay toppled after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. Image credit: © iStockphoto.com/Elhenyo

Now is the time to go over your insurance policies and provide documentation to show what property you own and what might have been damaged by Irene’s winds and flooding, Richman says.

“Whenever you purchase any long-term item, such as a lamp or sofa or new 70-inch TV or whatever, you should keep receipts to prove your purchases,” he says. “In light of what just happened over the weekend, you should keep such receipts in a waterproof lock box or a bank safety deposit box at the very least to protect your receipts and policies from damage.”

Now is the time to also bring out the photos you have taken of your belongings so you can prove that you had them, according to Richman. “If you do have to make an insurance claim, you will have proof of your purchases.”

Your insurance coverage will be important as you file your claims. Some homeowners and renters policies offer replacement value for property losses, meaning they will replace an item at its equivalent cost today, even if the item is several years old. That kind of coverage is a bit more expensive but is worth the cost because it gives you true replacement value, rather than a percentage of an item’s value.

“Get a replacement cost policy if at all possible,” Richman says. Often you can obtain discounts if your homeowner’s or renter’s policy is with the same company that handles your vehicle insurance. Some policies have wind damage or water damage exclusions and you need to be aware of that up front, he says.

“You want to get the most coverage that you can afford” to protect your home and belongings, he says. That could be tougher if you live in a floodplain or near a river because the coverage might be much more expensive.

If that’s the case, don’t give up, he says. Instead, do some shopping for a policy with other insurance companies. “If one carrier can’t cover you, you may be able to get supplemental coverage with another company.”

After a storm like Irene, policyholders need to take swift action to file any claims and make their insurance companies aware of their losses, Richman says.

“You should make a claim as quickly as possible if it is weather related. Call your adjuster to make claim so they can come out to document it.”

And since others will be making similar calls and claims, find out from your insurance company when they will be able to respond to your call. “Ask when they are going to take care of things,” Richman says. “And if you don’t get a response quickly enough, then contact a lawyer. If it’s a regional event, give them some time to respond because they can be busy.”

Major storm scenarios, including Hurricane Irene, provide a good reason to be sure that you buy insurance with a company that has a local presence, Richman advises. “When you have a local insurance agent, they can be there when you need them and you can know how to reach them. This is why I don’t recommend online insurance companies, where there’s no local office or agent for you to call.”

Make sure that you have the phone numbers for your insurance agents in your cellphone so you can reach them easily in an emergency. Having phone numbers for contractors such as plumbers and carpenters is also a good idea because your phone books may not be reachable if your home has been flooded.

One other critical tip: when you are returning to your home after a flood or major wind damage, be careful, Richman says. “Don’t put yourself in jeopardy on the property because wires can be down and other hazards can exist.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has put together a list of tips to help homeowners return home safely after a hurricane or other weather catastrophe. Among the key tips are:

*Don’t return to your flood-damaged home before the area is declared to be safe by local officials

*Keep a battery-powered radio with you so you can listen for emergency updates and news reports.

*Use a battery-powered flash light to inspect a damaged home. Note: The flashlight should be turned on outside before entering – the battery may produce a spark that could ignite leaking gas, if present.

*Watch out for animals, especially poisonous snakes. Use a stick to poke through debris.

*Stay off the streets. If you must go out, watch for fallen objects; downed electrical wires; and weakened walls, bridges, roads, and sidewalks.

*Before you enter your home, walk carefully around the outside and check for loose power lines, gas leaks, and structural damage. If you have any doubts about safety, have your residence inspected by a qualified building inspector or structural engineer before entering.

*Do not enter if you smell gas, or if floodwaters remain around the building.

*AppliancesIf they are wet, turn off the electricity at the main fuse box or circuit breaker. Then, unplug appliances and let them dry out. Have appliances checked by a professional before using them again. Also, have the electrical system checked by an electrician before turning the power back on.

FEMA also has a Web site to provide help for homeowners who need rebuilding and renovation work on their properties due to storm damage.

Among the information on the site are details about repairing Your Flooded Home from the American Red Cross.

Other useful FEMA information includes help on removing mold from Your home after the storm and flooding has receded.

Storms like Irene offer major challenges for property owners in times of emergency, so it’s good to be prepared ahead of time as much as possible.

Having insurance company information, proof of ownership for your belongings, documentation, photographs and more, is a smart way to prepare for unexpected disasters.

Along the way, sometimes you’ll need professional, skilled and compassionate legal representation to make your property whole again. If that’s the case, we here at MyPhillyLawyer stand ready to assist you.

When winning matters most, call MyPhillyLawyer.