Your home was damaged by a hurricane. Windows blown out. An oak tree on the roof. Floodwater sloshed through the living room. Now what do you do?
First, experts tell the Tampa Bay Times, it’s important to remain calm and set realistic expectations for what comes next — a long and complicated process of cleaning up, hiring help and navigating insurance claims.
“You’re going to get through this, no matter how dire it appears,” said Bob Reynolds of Miami-based Morris & Reynolds Insurance, who lost his home and office building to Hurricane Andrew in 1992. “And, you’re not alone. Your whole community is going to be in the same boat including the need for supplies, repairs and insurance adjusters. It’s a demand surge, and it will take some patience.”
If you’ve evacuated, do not go home until it’s deemed safe by the local authorities. That could be a few days after the storm. Then, take these actions.
Document the damage
“Take photos of everything,” said Rick Tutwiler, a public insurance adjuster and president of Tampa-based Tutwiler & Associates, which helps policyholders navigate homeowners insurance claims. The roof, the outside, inside, the flood line that shows how high the water went. It’s even better if pictures are taken before the storm hits, so you can see what it looked like before.”
File an insurance report
Contact your insurance company as soon as possible. It can usually be done via a 1-800 number, but you may find yourself on hold. Some companies have online portals or apps for making a report.
“They’ll be overwhelmed,” said Reynolds, “possibly with thousands or tens of thousands of claims, but the sooner you report yours, the closer you get to the front of the line. And while you wait on them, you clean up, you wait, you make it safe and you take care of yourself.”
Tutwiler stressed the importance of knowing your specific policy. One general rule is that standard homeowners policies do not cover flooding, which requires a separate policy. If you live in a federal flood zone, you may have been required to purchase flood insurance when you bought your home, but otherwise you’d need to have added it.
Flooding is “a whole different ballgame in terms of your claim,” requiring inventories, photos and estimates submitted within 60 days.
Protect your property from more damage
Most homeowners insurance policies state that it’s the policyholder’s responsibility to protect what’s left as best you can, said Reynolds. Early cleanup comes down to stopping additional damage. Leaking holes should be covered with a tarp. Board up broken windows. Get the tree off the roof. Prevent mold by mopping up water and removing wet items like books or mattresses.
Preventing quick-developing mold might save you money later, Tutwiler said. A policy may cover reasonable mold prevention, but might not cover mold removal.
If you’re spending money to prevent damage, whether it’s supplies or hiring help, keep detailed records for the insurance company. Tutwiler recommends sending them a copy of every estimate asking, Do you approve of this? “Even if they don’t respond, you have a record that you communicated it to them.”
Every policy is different, but many policies cover around $3,000 of damage mitigation.
Preventing further damage likely means hiring help. Contractors will be in high demand, drawing many from out of town, but Reynolds said finding someone established and local is one of the best defenses against fly-by-night scams.
Consumers should take their time researching a contractor, get multiple estimates and avoid high-pressure sales tactics. “I’ve seen flood damage contractors come in and install all this equipment and charge $50,000 or $75,000 to dry up a property,” Tutwiler said. “And that’s money out of your policy you might need, and you may not have needed all that work.”
Check contractor reviews online, and verify they are licensed via Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation at myfloridalicense.com or 850-487-1395.
If you can’t stay, save receipts
Most homeowners insurance policies will cover some additional living expenses for “loss of use” of a property, meaning it’s uninhabitable until it’s repaired or completely rebuilt. This could include the cost of a hotel, or even rent on an apartment if it takes longer. It may also cover things like the cost of dining out because you don’t have a home kitchen. Tutwiler said it’s best to pay for all of this with one credit card, if possible, to keep it organized, and to keep detailed records and receipts for the insurance company.
“You might even want to ask them how to expedite getting an advance to cover living expenses in the short term if you can’t live in your house,” Reynolds said. But he cautions that electrical outages are not grounds for “loss of use” coverage in most policies.
Document all insurance company interactions
Get a notepad, Tutwiler said, and log every conversation with anyone from the insurance company, and who exactly they work for, as some claims adjusters will be outside contractors brought in by the insurance companies to help after a catastrophe. Be sure to track dates, times and what they’ve said.
Again, be patient
In a catastrophe situation, it might be a week or two before the insurance company even gets around to inspecting your property. Expect to wait.
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2022 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide
HOW TO TALK TO KIDS ABOUT THE HURRICANE: A school mental health expert says to let them know what’s happening, keep a routine and stay calm.
WHAT TO EXPECT IN A SHELTER: What to bring — and not bring — plus information on pets, keeping it civil and more.
SAFEGUARD YOUR HOME: Storms and property damage go hand in hand. Here’s how to prepare.
IT'S STORM SEASON: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.
RISING THREAT: Tampa Bay will flood. Here's how to get ready.
DOUBLE-CHECK: Checklists for building all kinds of hurricane kits
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Rising Threat: A special report on flood risk and climate change
INTERACTIVE MAP: Search your Tampa Bay neighborhood to see the hurricane flood risk.