What to Do After a Natural Disaster Strikes

Getting caught in a natural disaster is a terrifying experience that brings with it both physical and emotional stress. The aftermath can be, in some ways, even more stressful as you are forced to deal with feelings of grief, loss, and lack of control on top of a whole host of mundane details related to necessary reconstruction services.

There’s no question that this time will be one of the hardest of your life, and you need some space to take care of yourself and your family as you heal from the trauma. The following list of next steps is intended to smooth the road forward in some small way. Working through these steps as you are able will provide some relief as safety and normalcy begins to return to your life.

First steps:

  • Account for the whereabouts of everyone in the family, including pets. Assess injuries and call for help from first responders if medical care is necessary.
  • Pack a go bag for everyone and gather up essential documents, such as insurance policies, that will assist the recovery process.
  • If the property is damaged but still standing, take steps to secure it. This can mean boarding over holes or broken windows and tarping a damaged roof.
  • Get away to a safer location to rest and address emotional concerns.

Next steps:

  • If the property is deemed safe, return the next day to take photos of the damage.
  • Take some time to remove valuables and other salvageable items from the home and move them to a secure storage unit. Be sure to keep the contract and receipts from renting that unit because insurance may cover all or part of the cost.
  • Contact your insurance agent. He or she will want to see the photos you took as well as a detailed inventory list and receipts for all expenses incurred in the recovery effort.
  • If the home is still safe for your family to live in, make sure that the damaged areas are sealed off from access. If not, secure temporary lodging. You will probably want to get a hotel for a few days until your insurance agent helps determine how long repairs will take. A longer term rental may be necessary at that point.
  • Reach out to friends and family for support, or if that’s not possible, explore various community resources that can help you manage being displaced during the period of reconstruction.

A few DON’Ts:

  • If at all possible, don’t let your insurance adjuster tour the property without you present. It protects your interest to be there and take notes about everything that happens and the advice you receive. Ask for a local contact number for your agent, and determine whether the agent has a permanent license for work in your state or simply an emergency license – the latter indicates much less training.
  • Do not sign any releases or waivers presented to you by the insurance company until you are truly satisfied that the offered settlement is fair. Know that you are not required to sign a release before your claim is paid. If you’re not comfortable, request a Public Adjuster to help assess the case on your behalf – he or she will have no financial stake in limiting your benefits.
  • Don’t take any unsolicited advice at face value. If your insurance agent discourages you from hiring a Public Adjuster, they are probably trying to maintain their advantage in negotiations. This practice is also illegal in many states.
  • Even if your insurance adjuster says it’s okay, do not dispose of damaged possessions. These items serve as proof of your damage claim.
  • Do not give your adjuster original copies of the photos you took to document damage. You may even want to ask him or her to sign for receipt of photo copies or provide an address for you to send them via certified mail.
  • Don’t hire any contractors without vetting them carefully. After a disaster, underqualified and improperly licensed outfits tend to spring up in order to take advantage of people’s need.

One further consideration:

You may also want to register for disaster assistance from FEMA in order to help cover expenses your insurance won’t.

In order to apply, you’ll need to have available the following information:

  • Address of the damaged property
  • Full description of disaster-related damage and losses
  • Current address
  • Best phone number
  • Insurance details
  • Annual household income
  • Social Security number
  • Routing and account number of your bank account for direct deposits from FEMA

There are a couple of ways to register. Call 1-800-621-FEMA or visit a Disaster Recovery Center near you.

This is surely a terrible time for you, and dealing with the hassle of moving and the bureaucracy of insurance claims only makes it harder. Though nothing will make this experience easy, understanding the next steps and red flags to avoid can help you get through it.

Know, too, that there is community support for you and that people have a wonderful way of rallying around a family in need. Don’t hesitate to reach out.

Best of luck to you and your family as you navigate your post-disaster recovery journey.

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