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Advice from the front lines

"A lot of times, the notion is that the policyholder has to leave things as they are after a disaster," says Peter Lore, director of claims-catastrophe at Nationwide Insurance. That's not the case. "They need to mitigate their losses," he says. Covering holes in the roof, moving important papers and items that aren't covered by insurance to safer locations, and contacting tree-removal services and building contractors are steps you can and should take even if you haven't met the insurance company's damage assessor. Both Lore and Stone urge policyholders to make their claims as soon as possible.

Preparation before the disaster helps, as well. Pay attention to watches and warnings from the National Weather Service. If an evacuation is ordered, insurance companies urge you to heed the instructions. However, if you're going to ride out the storm, make sure you have enough food and water to last a week. "Hunker down or hunker out," advises Ray Stone, catastrophe manager at Travelers Property Casualty.

"Hunker down or hunker out."

The Travelers advises its policyholders to either call the company's toll-free catastrophe hotline or visit the catastrophe team in person when making a claim. Many times, local insurance agencies will be unable to provide assistance because they, like the other residents of a disaster area, are hindered by Mother Nature.

"Call your agent," advises Carol Duarte, consultant of catastrophe operations at State Farm. Duarte says that State Farm customers can always call the company's toll-free catastrophe number, but the insurer advises that since its policyholders are used to dealing with their agents, the agency should be your first stop.

The race for repairs

Patience is a requirement that is forced on many storm victimes. Often times, policyholders will have their checks in hand three days after the storm passes, but contractors will be in such short supply that repairs to houses and property may not be complete until several months after the disaster.

The responsibility of finding a construction company falls on the property owner.

Trying to expedite the repair process is not easy and insurance companies are wary about giving advice on how to get a contractor to your property before one goes to your neighbor's house. Duarte of State Farm says that you have to be lucky. Dennis Neuharth, manager of the Travelers' mobile fleet, says it always helps to know a contractor or someone who has a contractor working on their property already. Company representatives say that once the claim has been processed, the bulk of the responsibility of finding a construction company falls on the property owner.

"Depending on the site," says Neuharth of the Travelers, "you may have to be very patient. Every storm is different." Neuharth offers the real-life example of the Carolinas in 1996 and 1998, when hurricanes Fran and Bonnie blasted the Carolina coastline. In 1996, property damage caused by Fran was widespread, but damage from Bonnie in 1998 was negligible because Fran had left the area barren; there was little for Bonnie to destroy.

"If you've lost your home, we're going to see you before we see someone whose fence has blown down," says Duarte of State Farm. But don't despair, your insurance company will evaluate your claim after the storm is over. For smaller disasters, companies can wrap up property-damage assessment and you'll have a check in your hand in a matter of a couple of weeks. If you're involved in a larger storm and your claim is not as straightforward as a leaky roof or a damaged fence, you may not enjoy the same expeditious claims process.

If your house is destroyed, you're likely to be shacking up in a hotel for quite some time. More times than not, your insurance company will pay for your housing expenses if you've been displaced. Check your policy to see if you have this coverage. Your insurer will also pay for your first couple of meals. However, be sure to check with the catastrophe team about the specifics of your coverage. Some policies may pay only for a limited stay in a hotel.

Insurance companies assert that their main goal is to make sure their policyholders are well-informed. Companies stress that protection of life and limb is paramount; don't risk your neck to save your roof. However, if you can protect your property, companies advise you to do so in order to minimize damage.

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