Disasters can strike anybody at anytime, resulting in catastrophic property damage and loss. Fires in dwellings and natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, severe storms, mudslides, and wildfires cause significant property damage every year across the United States. Although disasters usually strike without warning, there are measures you can take both before and after they strike to protect your property and your finances.
Which Weather Disasters are Most Likely in your Area?
Although your risk of experiencing a natural disaster depends on where you live, every state has experienced some type of natural disaster. Floods and flash floods are the most common, occurring in all 50 states. Although hurricanes primarily damage islands and coastal areas, they can move inland, spawn dangerous thunderstorms and tornadoes, and produce rain that can cause massive flooding. Tornadoes occur most commonly in Texas, Florida, and throughout the Southeast and Midwest, but they can strike almost every state. California is prone to earthquakes, but since the turn of the 20th century, earthquakes have occurred in 39 other states and caused damage in all 50. (Source: Insurance Information Institute, 2013)
Tip: To find out what weather disasters are most likely to strike your community, contact your local National Weather Service office, local emergency management office, or American Red Cross chapter.
Prepare now to reduce future catastrophic property losses
Buy Adequate Property Insurance
Although you can’t prevent a disaster from destroying your home or possessions, you can prevent it from destroying your finances by purchasing adequate insurance, including flood insurance. If you own a home, you’ll need to buy a homeowners policy that offers replacement cost coverage or guaranteed replacement cost coverage. While a standard homeowners policy pays only for the actual cash value of your home, replacement cost coverage will rebuild your home up to the limits of your policy, regardless of its actual cash value.
“Guaranteed replacement cost” coverage provides further protection and will pay to rebuild your house regardless of policy limits, even if it costs more to rebuild your house than it did to build it originally, as a result of increased material and labor costs and building code changes. It may be a good idea to opt for replacement cost coverage for your personal possessions as well. The drawback is that this coverage may be significantly more expensive than standard coverage. In addition, consider specialized types of coverage that will insure your property specifically against various types of natural disasters that are likely to occur where you live.
Tip: Don’t wait to buy specialized types of insurance until hurricane season or until you hear on the news that flooding is imminent in your area. Your insurance carrier will likely refuse to underwrite the policy until a waiting period is over.
Proactive Steps to Reduce your Risk
You can do several things to reduce the likelihood that a fire, storm, or other natural disaster will destroy your property and possessions. First, before buying, building, or renting a home, evaluate the structure’s location. Is it in an area at high risk for some type of natural disaster? If so, consider living somewhere else if you want to reduce your risk. If you are building a home, make sure that it is constructed according to the existing building code, and have a building inspector, architect, or fire department inspector suggest ways to protect the house from certain hazards. If you already own or rent a home, you may be able to improve it substantially without spending a lot of money. For instance, you may want to bolt tall furniture to the walls and install latches on cupboards to prevent damage and injuries that can occur when your possessions fall during an earthquake.
Make a Record of your Property and Personal Possessions
Videotape, photograph, and/or make a written inventory of your property and personal possessions, then either give it to a friend or relative or store it in a safe place away from your home. If catastrophe strikes, you can use the inventory to refresh your memory and provide details about the property and possessions that were damaged or destroyed, making it much easier and less traumatic for you to support your insurance claim.
Tip: Have antiques, valuables, and unique items appraised, and keep the appraisals with your home inventory.
Keep Important Documents and Valuables Safe
You may want to keep most of your important documents and valuables in a safety-deposit box to ensure they are safe from fire and natural disasters. However, if you use these documents or possessions frequently, you may prefer to keep them in your home. No matter where they are stored, make sure they are readily accessible if you need them in a hurry when a disaster strikes. One way to do this is to store them in a box that can be carried out of your home quickly and easily. This evacuation box should be waterproof and fireproof and should contain marriage and birth certificates, insurance paperwork, titles, wills, passports, and a copy of the previous year’s tax return. You may also want to put a list of important phone numbers and addresses in the box, a list of your bank account and Social Security numbers, and copies of your safety-deposit box keys and car keys.
Tip: You may choose to keep some paperwork in a safety-deposit box and some in an evacuation box in your home. For instance, never store your original will in a safety-deposit box, because the box may be sealed at the time of your death. However, you may want to keep things in your safety-deposit box that take up a lot of space or that need special protection, such as jewelry, copies of photographs or negatives, appraisals of valuable items, copies of your written or videotaped home inventory, a list of credit card numbers, and copies of important paperwork.
Start an Emergency Cash Fund
It’s important to have access to cash to help you survive the weeks or months following a disaster. First, even if you have insurance, you will likely have to pay a deductible before your coverage kicks in, and your insurance won’t compensate you for all of your increased living expenses if your home is partially or totally destroyed. In addition, people living in areas that experience severe damage may lose their jobs temporarily or permanently when businesses are unable to open because the business has been damaged or destroyed or because utilities are cut off. Although some disaster help is available from charities or from the government, it won’t be enough to cover all your expenses. You should aim to keep funds for at least three to six months’ worth of living expenses in an emergency cash reserve account (e.g., a savings account or money market fund) that can be easily liquidated.
After the Storm: Things to Do
Contact your Insurance Company – After a catastrophe strikes your property, call your insurance agent or company as soon as possible and ask that an appraiser be sent right away. Ask for advice about making emergency repairs, but don’t hire any contractors until clearing it with your insurance company. Find out if you are entitled to any money for living expenses under your insurance contract. While you’re waiting for an appraiser, take photos of damage to your property and gather records that you have, including your household inventory and receipts for expensive items that you might own. If you don’t have a household inventory, you’ll have to rely on your memory and old photos of your home to make a list of things destroyed.
Providing as much information as possible about losses will help ensure that your claim is settled quickly and fairly. You should also keep careful notes of your conversations with the adjusters and check over all paperwork and supporting records to make sure the settlement is fair. If you believe it’s not, you can appeal the settlement offer to your insurance company or try to settle your claim through arbitration. After you receive your settlement, keep it in a liquid account, because you’ll need the money soon to replace, repair, or rebuild your property.
Government, Private, and Nonprofit Assistance – After you are struck by a catastrophe, you should seek information about disaster loans and financial assistance programs available to you from one or more government agencies, private programs, or nonprofit organizations that help victims of natural and other disasters. If you have lost property in a fire, contact your local fire department or American Red Cross chapter for information on what assistance is available in your community.
If you are the victim of a natural disaster, numerous other sources of help may be available. For instance, you may be able to apply for help from state and local government disaster relief programs, and you can also seek assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
FEMA can provide emergency housing or assistance to cover the cost of living expenses and hotel accommodations. You may receive a low-interest loan or a cash grant. If you don’t have insurance, or your insurance is inadequate, you may be eligible to receive a low-interest loan from the Farm Service Agency (FSA) or the Small Business Administration (SBA). You can also apply for a cash grant from FEMA if you don’t qualify for a loan. For more information on disaster relief programs, contact the American Red Cross or FEMA.
Tax Deductibility for Weather-Related Losses
A personal (non-business) casualty or theft loss is deductible if the loss exceeds $100 and your total casualty and theft losses in a year (in excess of the $100 per loss floor) exceed 10 percent of your adjusted gross income (AGI). However, for the loss to be deductible, you must file an insurance claim (if the loss is covered by insurance). The amount deductible is the lesser of the decrease in fair market value of the property as a result of the casualty, theft or the adjusted basis in the property before the casualty or theft, minus any insurance or other reimbursement received or that is expected to be received. Note: If your residence was located in a federally-declared disaster area, you can deduct a casualty loss resulting from the disaster in either the year the loss occurred or the year preceding the loss.
Example(s): Lynn files her year-one taxes and receives a $200 refund. In year two, her home is damaged by a hurricane, and her county is declared a federal disaster area. Lynn elects to amend her year-one tax return because it would give her a higher deduction than one she could take in year two, thus giving her an additional refund for year one.
For more information, see IRS Publication 547, Casualties, Disasters, and Thefts (Business and Non-business).
- First-aid supplies (e.g., bandages, antiseptic)
- Prescription medication
- Canned goods and a can opener
- Several gallons of water
- Battery-powered radio and extra batteries
- Rechargable NOAA Weather Radio
- Extra cell phone batteries
- Flashlight and extra batteries
- Matches in a waterproof container
- Laterns and candles
- Toiletries and personal hygiene items
- Special items for infants (e.g., formula, diapers)
- Protective clothing
- Shoes (a must – fallen debris may cause injury)
- Extra bedding, sleeping bags
- Entertainment (e.g., games, deck of cards, books)
- Comfortable amount of cash
- Rolls of plastic sheeting
- Sandbags & Shovels
- Copies of important documents
- Wills, birth/marriage certs, insurance docs
- Bank account and credit card information