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Tornado damage: cleanup and insurance claims

Standard home insurance policies include coverage for tornado damage. But there are steps homeowners can take to minimize the damage and get back on track.

"I always tell people documentation, communication and cooperation are the most important elements of any claims settlement," says Logan Harrison, chief deputy commissioner at the Indiana Department of Insurance. "We recognize that homeowners are going through a really tough time but if they're able to keep those three things in mind, it will make their lives much easier."

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Write it down

making tornado damage claimsBefore you can begin documenting the damage to your home and property, it's critical that you determine whether or not it's safe to remain in an area that's been hit by a tornado. After all, downed power lines, gas leaks and broken glass are accidents waiting to happen.

"Make sure it's safe to go back into your neighborhood," warns Julie Rochman, president and chief executive officer at the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety in Tampa, Fla. "Safety always comes first. You want to make sure that emergency operations people have first cleared the area [for you] to go back."

Next, begin documenting the damage. "Be as detailed as you can," recommends Jeanne Salvatore, a spokesperson for the III. "You want to make lists and take photographs."

Rochman agrees, adding that "taking video is also a really good thing to do. That's because a lot of videos include time and date stamps for greater accuracy."

That's not to suggest that you should delay making minor repairs. While it's critical to document every bit of damage, Salvatore says, "If you don't have a total loss, you also want to make basic or interim repairs to prevent additional damage."

Putting a tarp over a damaged roof, boarding up blown-out windows or sweeping up broken glass won't impact your insurance claim. Remember to "save your receipts for things like tarps and plywood, because you'll be reimbursed by your insurance company for the costs of those repairs," says Salvatore.

Locate a mobile claims unit

If your neighborhood has been hit by tornado, chances are there are a number of mobile claims units from various insurers roving around. Fortunately, finding them is easier than you think. "Call your insurance company or go online to find out if there's a mobile claims unit in your area," recommends Salvatore. "Your state insurance department can also be a good resource."

According to Rochman, in the aftermath of a tornado, insurance companies typically "start advertising on radio and print. Red Cross will have the numbers you need, and shelters will too. Insurers also park mobile units in places where people are most likely to shop, like big-box hardware stores like Home Depot and Lowe's."

Rochman says you can make it easier for mobile claims units to find you by putting up homemade signs with your address, the name of your insurance carrier and a phone number where you can be reached.

Initiating your claims process

If you're paying regular visits to a hospital or traveling back and forth between shelters, starting your claims process may not be at top of your list. But Harrison says homeowners should "reach out to their insurance agent or designated representative as soon as possible." Harrison recommends "jotting down the date and time of all communications with an agent, as well as the employee's name and identification number" in order to track your claim.

If your home is uninhabitable, you're likely entitled to reimbursement for additional living expenses from your policy, including hotel and meal expenses.

If your home has suffered extensive damage, consider hiring a public insurance adjuster to help you through the claims process..

An ounce of prevention

Your insurance claim will go more smoothly if you have prepared a home inventory in advance. The III has helpful Know Your Stuff software. Then you won't need to spend time reconstructing a list of your possessions from memory.

"Conducting a home inventory by listing all your personal possessions makes it easier to file a claim," says Salvatore. "Make sure you've kept your insurance up to date. And try to understand what your insurance policy covers and what it doesn't cover before you make a claim."

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