How to Prepare Before a Hurricane Hits

By Lacie Glover Personal Finance NerdWallet.com

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have jolted Americans back into storm preparation mode, but many homeowners still may not be ready if a big storm heads their way.

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You don’t have to be one of them. Here are the steps to take to keep yourself and your family safe, your belongings as undamaged as possible, and your insurance claims on point.

Pack an evacuation kit

The most important thing to do when you know a disaster is coming is to leave the area if you’re advised to do so.

“The biggest problem we see is that people don’t evacuate,” says Mike O’Malley, senior vice president of public policy at the American Insurance Association.

Don’t assume the worst can’t happen to you, “and don’t wait until the last minute,” says O’Malley. If you delay you may find roads are clogged and gas stations are out of fuel.

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Here’s what to bring if you evacuate:

  • Three to five days’ worth of clothing
  • Cash in small bills
  • Flashlights and batteries
  • First-aid kit
  • Prescription medicines for everyone in the family
  • Water and nonperishable foods
  • Extra keys for your home and car
  • Important family documents, like marriage licenses, birth certificates and passports
  • Your homeowners and flood insurance policy declaration pages (these list the coverage you have)
  • Contact information for your insurance agent

Protect your property

Whether wind, water or both damage your property, you can prepare to make sure you’re reimbursed for what’s lost.

“Take an inventory of your personal items,” says Chris Hackett, senior director of personal lines policy at the Property Casualty Insurance Association of America, a trade group. One method is to use a home inventory app such as those from Sortly or Encircle.

Or, even more simply, “you can just take a video with your smartphone, going from room to room,” says Hackett. Open closets and drawers to show everything you own.

You may be able to avoid some damage to belongings if you:

  • Move everything from the backyard  — grills, patio furniture and so on — into the house or a garage so they don’t become projectiles.
  • Remove dead or dying branches from trees.
  • Board up windows.
  • If you have a second floor, move valuable items upstairs, if possible.

Find a place for your pets

Many hotels and evacuation shelters don’t accept pets. That includes most Red Cross shelters, except for service animals. So it’s important to contact your veterinarian or a local animal shelter ahead of time to find a safe haven for your pets. If none can be found, look for a hotel that accepts animals and is on high ground.

The furry members of your family should also have a disaster kit ready to go. Check out the Humane Society’s checklist for a good pet emergency kit that includes sturdy leashes and at least five days’ worth of water and food.

Afterward, make your insurance claims

Once you’ve returned home and surveyed the damage, call your insurance agent or company to initiate a claim. If you can prevent further damage by doing things such as securing a tarp over a hole to prevent further leaking, do so, and keep receipts for the claim, O’Malley says.

The types of common hurricane claims are:

  • Flood insurance: Pays for damage from flooding, including foundation walls, electrical and plumbing systems, many appliances, furniture, clothing and more. See FEMA’s list of what’s covered and not covered under an NFIP policy.
  • Homeowners insurance: In most states, pays for damage caused by wind, including items hurled into your house. In some coastal areas you must buy a separate windstorm insurance policy if you want wind coverage.
  • Comprehensive car insurance: Pays for flood-damaged cars.

» MORE: Can you buy last-minute hurricane insurance?

Be prepared to have a different insurance adjuster for each type of claim.

Many homeowners’ policies will pay for “additional living expenses” up to a certain amount if you must relocate during a mandatory evacuation or repairs, says Hackett. Keep receipts for everything you buy during the disaster and afterward, in case you can be reimbursed by your insurance company.

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