Last week much of the mid-atlantic suffered damage from a powerful derecho—a windstorm that can do just as much, if not more, damage as a hurricane.
Virginia was hit especially hard, and VA and West VA were both declared official disaster areas. Lynchburg, Virginia and surrounding counties of Amherst and Campbell were named hardest hit in a Derecho storm that brought winds recorded up to 80mph on June 29, 2012 according to FEMA and Virginia Department of Emergency Management officials. In fact, it was the largest non-hurricane storm in Virginia’s history. Cf. here for some official statements.
This guide was written in response to the devastation the people of Lynchburg and surrounding areas suffered. Nevertheless, it is useful for major catastrophes, widespread disasters, sudden weather damage, and many other emergency situations REGARDLESS of where you live and if you want to know how to deal with insurance, especially car insurance claims if you were affected from similar events.
What Happened to Lynchburg?
Sometimes referred to as land hurricanes, a “Derecho” (pronounced deh-RAY-cho) is fairly infrequent and rarely does it affect a huge area, but can do as much damage as a tornado. This one was no different in that it brought tornado-like damage but was almost unheard of in its sheer size and scope. The storms followed a very wide swath that included a great deal of the upper Midwest and Mid-Atlantic, including Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and Washington, DC.
- Trees and poles snapped like toothpicks, fell on houses and cars, blocked roads and entire neighborhoods.
- Left 22 dead and approximately 5 million people without electricity during a major heat wave. Some areas were experiencing temperatures in the 100s with even higher heat indexes.
- Lynchburg, Virginia (named after Founder John Lynch) and surrounding counties of Amherst and Campbell were without power for as many as 11 days.
Few were prepared. Most areas received a forewarning of severe thunderstorms possible, but nothing could have prepared for such widespread devastation. Derecho’s are difficult to predict as they are formed by several storm fronts uniting in favorable and hot conditions. It’s nearly impossible to determine the path it will take and length of time it will continue.
In fact, many warnings came with only enough time for listeners to take immediate cover, not to prepare for the events that unfolded. Those not tuned in to radio stations, local television, or social media announcements were completely taken by surprise.
June was a very busy month for claims all over the US
Insurance claims are piling up. Including the initial estimates of losses from the Derecho, weather loss in the US for June neared $2 billion, according to the Aon Benfield catastrophe report. That’s not counting the wildfire losses for the two major fires in Colorado that claimed over 600 homes.
Read further on the global losses from weather disasters and one will quickly see that life is fragile and fleeting. It is far better to “prepare for the worst, but hope for the best” than to live like nothing bad will ever happen.
Preparedness: An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure
No one is immune to weather hazards. Lightning, hail, tornadoes and hurricanes pop up, often causing secondary issues with mudslides, igniting fires, and flooding. It is imperative that families creates an emergency prep kit that can help ease the discomfort and inconvenience of storms that cause massive power outages at any time and season.
Preparing can be as simple as memorizing phone numbers and addresses and the steps to take in specific situations or as detailed as stocking up on extra non-perishable food, first aid supplies, batteries, water, purchasing a generator, and doing all the things that would make a doomsday survivalist proud.
The younger children are in a family the more often the emergency plan should be discussed. Memorizing phone numbers and addresses could mean a fast reunion of separated family members when emergencies occur during the day.
In any case, the plan should be discussed at least once or twice a year and a couple copies placed in high-traffic areas like the fridge or home office. While not being discussed every day, bits and pieces will be read intermittently throughout the year, coming back to memory when disaster strikes.
Much more information can be found on emergency preparedness on your state’s website or on ready.gov (part of FEMA website) where you can see a checklist for every possible disaster and what to do before, during, and after each event.
Records, Documents, and Proof in a Disaster Area
Safekeeping crucial documents might be the single most important detail of being prepared for major emergencies. Originals should be grouped together in a plastic protector or Ziploc bag so the original isn’t accidently given away. Multiple copies should be available for multiple family members going in different directions.
- Photo ID’s;
- Driver’s licenses;
- Social Security cards;
- Birth certificates;
- Copies of deeds for homes and/or land;
- Copies of the most recent declarations on all property and casualty insurance policies;
- Life and financial insurance documents;
- Investment information;
- Credit card statements and information;
- Marriage license and/or divorce decree;
- Bank account records;
- Copies of utility bills.
- A savings account with enough in it to cover the deductible. Deductibles can be as high as 20% of your dwelling coverage depending on the type of loss. A common deductible for hail and windstorm can be 1-5%. Earthquakes can be as high as 20% in earthquake-prone areas.
The key here is to have paper copies of everything. A great computer software program won’t be the least bit helpful when there is no electricity or the house has been damaged along with the contents.
One more thing that many people would never think of in this age of smart phones that has everything in a hand-held device: A phone book. Something to think about if cell phones are drifting in a foot of water, burned up in a fire, or cell phone towers and Wi-Fi are all down.
Unpreparedness: Caught by Surprise? Looking for That “Pound of Cure”?
The unprepared will surely face much more inconvenience and hardship than those who had some kind of emergency plan in place. If someone is caught in a crisis of epic proportions, how will they deal with the subsequent issues?
1. Quickly gather the most important items that will sustain life, not possessions.
Major weather, fire, or nature events call for fast response, so make the minutes count.
- Get water even if it is just a few spill-proof bottles. The more the better; especially when a family is seeking safety inside the home from a major storm.
- Grab as many document noted above as possible.
- Have an extra pair of shoes, a few changes of clothes, and a few blankets.
- Non-perishable food items that can be used in an emergency like easy-open canned food, cereal, breakfast bars, peanut butter, crackers, and other dry foods. Include a set of utensils.
- Matches, notebook and pens (plural, because you know that if you grab one, it won’t work!)
- Don’t forget the furry family members—pet food and pets.
- Business owners should keep copies of important business documents in a place that is quickly and easily accessible.
2. When the coast is clear, check for damage.
- If any damage to home or property is found, immediately place a claim. Pictures and/or videos should be taken of every angle of damage inside and out and around the perimeter before any attempt to clean up.
- Most top insurers will have a way to place a claim through their website or an app. This could result in a quicker response rather than waiting for long hold times on the claims phone number.
- Depending on how widespread the event, there could be millions of people placing claims at the same time; so if you have to call, be patient but persistent. Don’t forget the claims person on the other side of the line is harried, too. Be kind and professional. He or she did not cause the problem and they can’t personally fix it. Now is the time to ask questions, even if they cannot all be answered at that time.
- Immediately start calling contractors as soon as the claim has been placed and pictures have been taken. Particularly for storms or disasters that have affected large regions, contractors will be in hot demand. Contractors as far as a couple hundred miles away might need to be contacted depending on the availability.
- This step is important because if a policyholder waits for the adjuster to come and a check comes in the mail, months could go by before work is completed.
3. Within the first 48 hours, record everything that occurred just before, during, and immediately after the disaster.
It’s surprising how fast details can be forgotten in the aftermath of a disaster. During the process, adrenaline is flowing and the brain is pumping out information as fast as possible to help get through the situation. Even if it has to be done in increments while dealing with claims, contractors, and phone calls, do it.
4. What to do if damage to the home is resulting in more damage.
In cases like broken windows or holes in the roof or walls, do everything possible to secure the home or business from further loss. There have been partial or whole claims that have been denied simply because a policyholder had sustained a small amount of damage but failed to protect from further damage
5. When the insurance company name can’t be recalled, follow these steps.
- In cases where the insurance company (or companies) are not known or remembered, search for clues in mail, old ID cards, and files. For home insurance information, check paperwork that came with the mortgage or contact the mortgage company. For cars and other vehicles with loans, check with the lender. They should have a record of the information on file.
- If the company still cannot be located, it’s down to a time-consuming game of hide and seek. Start calling major insurers and just go down the list. If the policy was purchased with a local broker or agent, call or go to their office.
6. Keep every single receipt.
- From the time a storm hits until the last repairing nail has been hammered, keep every receipt. This would include meals, gas, lodging, supplies, and medicines: Nothing should be omitted. Have a place where you keep receipts in a secure place, preferably a fire and waterproof lock box, but at minimum a sturdy Ziploc.
- Some, if not all, can be reimbursed through your insurance company. Make sure you mark clearly on the receipt what it was for without obscuring information unless it’s obvious; i.e., a receipt from Home Depot with an easily defined itemized list.
What to Do if Insurance Claim is Denied?
An insurance company is in the business of making money. Don’t let the fuzzy-wuzzy commercials about being your neighbor and in good hands fool you. Sure, a local agent might be your neighbor, and probably even be very nice; but when it comes down to it, the insurance company wants to make more money in premiums than they want to pay out in claims or they will be out of business.
If you are in the unfortunate position where some or all of your claim is denied, there is a process already put into place for you to file an appeal and a system of hierarchy to follow. Your policy should have this information, but if you are in need of guidance, contact a lawyer or your state department of insurance for advice.
What to Learn From Virginia’s Derecho
Be prepared. It really doesn’t take long to compile a simple plan to start off with so stop putting it off. Like Nike says, “Just do it.” Every time you go to the grocery store, pick up one or two additional items specifically for emergencies: Extra non-perishables, batteries, candles, matches, etc. Keep them in a separate cabinet.
The most important thing is to preserve the life of you and your family. Everything else is secondary. However, taking a few moments here and there to add to your “emergency kit” and prepare for a disaster will be immensely helpful in times of need from anything from a minor thunderstorm to a major flood.