Seven years ago my home town was rocked by a massive earthquake. Less than 6 months later a huge aftershock destroyed buildings and took 185 lives. At the time of the earthquakes, I (along with my husband) owned three rental properties. All fully insured for replacement cost. Two of were irreparably damaged, and the claim for the third was contested over five years until we came to a fair settlement.
I’ve had to deal with insurers and engineers, administrators and government agencies. In the beginning of my journey, I was naive and truly thought the insurance I paid for was there to protect me. After some months, I came to the realisation that my insurance provider only wanted to limit their financial loss and were not there to help me out.
I soon figured that the only way to get my full entitlement was to fight my case, which was easier because of the system I used which I am sharing below.
I know your head is full right now, so I’ll make this as easily-digestible as possible.
8 Things to Do After You Experience a Major Disaster
1. Get to know your insurance policy
Dig out that dusty insurance policy and have a good read. If there are any terms you don’t understand in the policy, this glossary from the Insurance and Risk Management Institute is an excellent resource.
2. Start a dedicated notebook/folder system
To start off with, log your calls. EVERY CALL. Ask the name of the person you are speaking to and note it down, along with the time of the call. Then take a short summary of what you discussed on the call. Right now, this may seem excessive but if you need to dispute anything later on, these notes will prove invaluable.
3. Email where possible
Getting the email contact for anyone you need to deal with removes a lot of stress from the process, as you can email them when you have time and not need to spend hours on hold. If you do choose to email, still keep notes in hard copy so you have a complete record in case your thoughts become muddled over time (it happens, believe me). Make a dedicated email folder for every email to do with your insurance claim.
Tip: In the end I stopped answering phone calls from my insurer and requested email as the sole form of communication. This was due to me becoming a bubbling mess on the phone, (because of the stress the situation was causing me), and not being able to represent myself to the best of my ability. Plus, I didn’t trust that they would record the phone call and I wanted a paper trail so email worked for me.
If you can access your home safely, taking inventory will be simple. Walk from room to room writing down every item in your home. To make this process quicker I would estimate on the smaller things, for instance in my office I would write down ‘stationary items worth $5’ and I wouldn’t note down every individual item of clothing unless they were valuable.
This part of the process is more for large, expensive items such as appliances and furniture. If the items have suffered damage, note the type of damage.
If you cannot safely access your home, you’ll need to use visualisation to take inventory. Go to a quiet place, close your eyes and imagine yourself sitting on the floor in the middle of the room. Say the items out loud and have someone write them down.
If you have major damage and access to the items, photographic evidence is your best chance at maximising success with your insurer. If you are using a traditional camera, use the time stamp function to add more useful data to your images.
If your home is damaged, do the same thing. Photograph and time stamp. Every little crack or leak needs to be noted. Do not trust that your insurer will do this for you. And remember no one knows your home like you do.
6. Don’t discard damaged items immediately
Whilst the cleanup process is cathartic, the reality is your insurance provider may want to see physical evidence of damaged items. If they are stinky or dangerous put them somewhere under a tarpaulin until you get clarification that you can dispose of them.
7. Clear time in your schedule
Dealing with insurance companies and government support agencies can take a long time. Most of it spent on hold. If you have a minor claim, this shouldn’t be too painful, but if like me, your claim dragged out over years with hundreds of inspections and assessments, the process can take over your life.
Prepare family and friends for your absence – most of them will be going through the same thing and completely understand. Cut out any non-essential commitments and make time for yourself each day.
8. Be careful what you share online
Would you believe that one of the top insurers in New Zealand had their staff members join closed Facebook groups set up so the community could help each other through the process of insurance claims? They never disclosed that they worked for the insurance companies but we quickly worked out who they were and banned them from the groups. But who knows if they set up fake profiles and joined under new names. Be very careful with who you trust and the level of detail you share about your own claim.
I truly hope your experience with the aftermath of a major disaster is better than mine was.
If nothing else, remember this know your rights, take notes, photograph, be careful who you trust.
(In the end, we were awarded fair settlements, but it took years and I’m still anxious when dealing with bureaucracy.)