How to File an Insurance Claim After a Natural Disaster

Nobody wants to go through a natural disaster like an earthquake, fire or flood. It can be traumatic — and so can filing an insurance claim.

While policyholders tend to expect insurance companies to seamlessly fix any natural disaster-related destruction once you file a claim, that’s not always the case.

[What Is Earthquake Insurance and Do You Need It?]

In fact, consumers often make filing mistakes that cost them thousands of dollars. Without carefully reading the fine print, you may be underinsured or need to pay for coverage out of pocket.

So, if you’re trying to determine what your insurance policy will cover to file a claim effectively, consider this your natural disaster aftermath action plan.

What Does Renters Insurance, Home Insurance and Water Damage Insurance Cover?

While renters insurance covers your belongings inside your rental, it doesn’t cover the actual building; your landlord’s insurance would cover building-related damage.

Home insurance policies, on the other hand, cover the cost of your property, as well as the assets inside and often will pay for medical bills if somebody is injured inside the home.

[9 Questions to Ask Before Paying Any Medical Bill]

Water damage insurance covers your property from water damage that might come from rain, such as a leaky ceiling, or from a sewer backup. Generally, it’s a wise idea to invest in flood insurance even if your home isn’t in a high-risk floodplain area if it still has proximity to waterways.

How Do You File a Successful Homeowners Insurance Claim?

After a natural disaster, act quickly. Here are crucial steps to take:

— Take photos of the damage.

— Make emergency repairs.

— Contact your insurer.

— Understand what your policy covers.

— Vet the contractors you hire to fix your property.

Take photos of the damage. Documenting any damage should be one of your first steps, says Stacey Giulianti, chief legal officer at Florida Peninsula Insurance Company in Boca Raton, Florida. As long as it’s safe, Giulianti cautions, take photos of the visible damage “as well as rooms or areas that are not damaged.”

Why take photos of rooms that aren’t damaged? Giulianti says that it’ll give the carrier proof of a well-maintained home. Plus, “it prevents unethical public adjusters and contractors from defrauding the homeowner by finding additional damages in those unaffected rooms,” Giulianti says.

[A Home Maintenance Checklist for Every Season]

Rob Yancey, a business insurance advisor with Jones Insurance Agency in Garner, North Carolina, has another tip for those dealing with the aftermath of a natural disaster, such as a hurricane or flood. Once you take photos, send them to your family or friends for safekeeping, to be on the safe side.

That may seem like you’re being extremely cautious, but you’re in the middle of a natural disaster. “You may drop your phone in water and lose your pictures,” Yancey says.

You also want to make sure the photos capture a lot of detail, says Jerry Linebaugh, a financial advisor and founder of Game Changer Wealth, a financial services firm in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

With water damage, Linebaugh suggests going the extra mile and taking photos using rulers or yardsticks to show the scope of the damage. That’s because later, an insurance adjuster could come away with an impression that the water wasn’t as deep as you said.

“Your willingness to take whatever steps you need to make your insurance company fulfill the contract details can make a huge difference,” Linebaugh says.

Linebaugh offers up the example of his sister and brother-in-law’s home, which flooded almost 10 years ago.

“The adjuster claimed that only in one room of their completely level one story home did the water reach 2 feet, but in the other rooms it was nearly a foot lower,” Linebaugh says. “They were denied more than $30,000 of policy claim assistance.”

Make emergency repairs. If it’s safe, you should secure your home and mitigate additional damage. That might involve something like boarding up windows or tarping a roof, Giulianti says. “Consumers are required to stop further damage from occurring in order to ensure coverage for their loss,” he says.

Ike Devji, an attorney who owns Arizona Wealth Law in Scottsdale, Arizona, agrees. “Most policies have language that requires you to take reasonable measures to prevent further damage after it has come to your attention,” he says.

If you end up spending money to do that, like buying a tarp for your roof, save the receipt for your insurer, says Jennifer Brault, a Columbus, Ohio-based vice president of personal lines property claims with Nationwide. Just remember to take those photos before you make any emergency repairs.

Contact your insurer. “Get a claim number issued immediately so you are in the system and have something to refer to on all future calls and correspondence,” Devji says. “Without a claim number you do not exist.”

Devji recommends that you keep a written log of all phone calls and correspondence with your insurance agent or anyone you talk to about the damage.

That may sound like overkill, but according to Devji, “Many insurance carriers intentionally obfuscate contact numbers and provide an endless maze of dead-end fax and phone numbers, in an effort to delay timely processing of claims or paperwork you away.”

And when you talk to your insurer and file your claim, or when you talk to an adjuster, be careful about what you say when describing the damage, Devji says.

“You are not a contractor, so don’t give opinions on the scope of the damage and costs,” he says. If you underestimate the damage, Devji thinks that will likely be used against you later.

When you talk to your insurer, if you have two or more phone numbers, give them to the agent to increase the odds that they can reach you.

“In a large, regional event, you may lose power for days, and your cell phone may go dead,” Yancey says.

Linebaugh emphasizes that you call your insurer as soon as safely possible.

“Make your claim first, ahead of the crowds,” he says.

“By making your claim in the few hours after disaster strikes, you will likely find faster processing times and better access to local contractors. This is especially important when more than a hundred people in your immediate area have had similar damage,” he adds.

Understand what your policy covers. Make sure you read your policy and assess what your claim involves, especially if you have different types of insurance covering your property and assets. For instance, depending where in the country you live, you might have earthquake and flood insurance, plus homeowners insurance.

“Make sure you’re making a claim on the right policy,” Linebaugh says. “For example, if water enters your home from rising water seeping or running into your home, that’s a flood claim, but if a flying object breaks a window in a storm and you have water that ruins flooring or other things, that’s regular homeowners or renters insurance.”

Vet the contractors you hire to fix your property. This can be the most stressful part of the cleanup. Your insurance company understandably doesn’t want to overpay for the services, and you certainly don’t want to hire a contractor who does a rotten job.

[How to Find a Reliable Home Contractor]

Your policy may cover resulting damage, which is the cost of fixing repairs made worse by a contractor. Just make sure you get estimates from at least three contractors and that the one you hire is licensed. And be sure to check references.

Why an Insurance Company Might Deny Coverage

There are several reasons why your claim may be denied.

You can be denied coverage if your home is impacted by a natural disaster that you don’t have coverage for, like an earthquake. Keep in mind that it can be very hard to get earthquake insurance because companies worry that if a big one hit it might bankrupt them.

If there’s evidence that you created additional damage or that you didn’t take proactive steps to make necessary repairs to mitigate additional damage, your claim could also be denied.

And if you hired somebody who wasn’t licensed and added more damages to your home, or if you tried to make repairs and created more problems, your insurance provider may also deny you coverage.

And last, maybe you’re underinsured; in some instances, you may have coverage, but you won’t be compensated for the full extent of the damage based on the terms and conditions in your policy. Say you have $300,000 worth of damage, but you were covered only for $200,000. While your claim wouldn’t be denied, you would need to pay the remaining expense out of pocket.

More from U.S. News

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How to File an Insurance Claim After a Natural Disaster originally appeared on

Update 04/05/24: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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