Shortcut Navigation:

Are You Prepared If a Natural Disaster Strikes?

It seems as though there's always a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, flood, fire, blizzard, or mudslide happening somewhere in the United States. A storm or other natural disaster could destroy your home, business, or workplace and put you in financial straits, but there are things you can do both before and after the event to help you recover quickly.

Pre-disaster

Create a financial emergency kit. Put together a kit that contains some cash and checks, a list of important contacts (e.g., your insurance agent), and copies of important documents, including identification cards, birth and marriage certificates, insurance policies and inventories, wills, trusts, and deeds. Make sure your kit is stored in a safe, secure place in your home, is easy to reach and carry, and is both waterproof and fireproof. You'll want to stash enough cash (or a credit card) to pay for immediate expenses such as gas, food, and lodging.

Tip:   While you're at it, you might also want to keep your most precious items in the kit, such as your special photos and family heirlooms.

Protect your assets. Take some commonsense precautions to safeguard your home, business, car, boat, and similar assets against damage from wind, water, fire, or other risks. For example, install an emergency generator and paperless drywall, keep loose objects (e.g., grills and patio furniture) secure, cut down overhanging tree limbs, park your car in a garage, and invest in storm windows, doors, and shutters.

Take inventory. Create and maintain an inventory of your valuables, including appliances, electronics, furniture, clothing, jewelry, and artwork. Record models and serial numbers, and take pictures or a video of the items. This will help when it comes time to file insurance claims and purchase replacements.

Check your insurance coverage. Make sure your insurance policies (e.g., homeowners, auto) include all the coverage you need, and understand that damage caused by natural disasters may not be covered under general types of policies. You may need to consider buying separate coverage for hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, or other disasters. Consult your insurance agent to determine whether you have adequate coverage given the likelihood of such events occurring in your area.

Post-disaster

In the immediate aftermath, proceed with caution. While the disaster may have passed, health and safety hazards still may exist. Be aware that any building you're in, including your home, may not be structurally sound, so carefully look for any apparent damage. Also, report contamination from spills of oil, gas, chemicals, or any hazardous substance.

Assess your property for damage. Take pictures of damaged areas both inside and outside your home, including trees, landscaping, and yard structures such as sheds.

File insurance claims immediately. Contact your insurance agent and file claims as soon as possible. The quicker you do so, the sooner you can get back on your feet.

Handling a dispute with your insurance company

Disagreements may arise with your insurance company about the amount the company paid on a claim, or the nonpayment of a claim. Be aware that the insurance industry is highly regulated. Your state has laws that dictate what insurance companies can and cannot do when it comes to bill collecting, settling claims, and other matters. The law may be called the Unfair Insurance Practices Act, the Unfair Claims Settlement Practices Act, or something similar. To learn about insurance laws in your state, call your state insurance department or check its website.

Protect your income. If you end up out of work, take advantage of any employee assistance programs that your employer may offer. Seek unemployment compensation from your state and ask about special job considerations for disaster victims. Find out if special unemployment benefits are available through the Department of Labor.

Get help from emergency sources. If you need immediate financial help, disaster relief funds and special programs (for example, housing assistance) may be available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or your state and local governments, as well as the American Red Cross, United Way, Salvation Army, social services, and local churches.

Consider available tax breaks. Tax law allows taxpayers to deduct certain unreimbursed casualty losses in the year in which they are incurred, subject to certain limitations. In certain presidentially declared disaster areas, individuals can claim the loss (again, subject to certain limitations) in the prior tax year by filing an amended return. Moreover, special relief (for example, bonus depreciation for business property) may be granted in the case of specific disaster events. Be sure to consult your tax professional about any tax relief that may be available to you.

Get legal help, if necessary. If you experience legal difficulties, you may want to consider hiring an attorney who specializes in the complex area of natural disaster law.

Don't ignore the stress. Surviving a natural disaster can be a very stressful situation. Don't hesitate to ask for help from family and friends. If you have young children, they may be upset about damage to their home and belongings. Be patient and try to explain what's happened and how you're going to try to get back to normal as soon as possible.