NEW YORK – The first piece of post-storm advice after a major weather event like Sandy is always to call your insurance company. But what if your phone isn't working or you don't have Internet service? What if the insurance company isn't answering the phone, or getting to you as fast as you'd like? Or, what if water is still pouring in through the roof and you've got more than enough on your hands right now?
The major insurers that cover the area affected by Sandy are not reporting any particular trouble connecting with homeowners. State Farm says as of Tuesday evening, it had logged 6,000 homeowners policy claims, and 900 car claims. USAA, which has a high number of active duty military members who may not be home at the moment, says it has taken in 17,000 claims so far, with the most common claim being for tree damage.
But with more than 6 million people still without power in the U.S. Northeast and hundreds of thousands displaced, it will be a while before all those claims filter in, as well as complaints about customer services.
IF YOU CAN'T CALL NOW
The good news is that if you can't communicate right now, that's ok, especially if you had to abandon your property for dry ground.
"The insurance company isn't going to hold it against you if you didn't board up the windows, but I'd get there as soon as I could, after the storm," says Bob Hunter, director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America. "Don't wait months to file a claim."
If you're at your home, and there's damage that needs to be repaired right away or it will get worse, the insurance company is actually going to be happy if you buy a tarp to cover a roof, or start pumping your basement. "Absolutely do emergency repairs," says State Farm spokesperson Holly Anderson.
Just before you start, take pictures and, if possible, video. Be sure to save your receipts.
IF YOU CAN'T GET THROUGH
What if your insurance company is the one that has the busy signal? In the areas affected by Sandy, the major insurers - State Farm, Allstate Corp, Travelers Companies, Chubb and Liberty Mutual - say they've staffed up offices and are accessible to customers either by phone, Internet or mobile app. Reuters was able to reach claims representatives at these insurers in under one minute when called on Wednesday afternoon.
But if you don't have luck getting through, you can contact most companies via social media.
That's what Michelle Leder did after a 75-foot maple tree fell on her Peekskill, New York home just after the storm began on Monday evening. Leder called the local police first, who told her to immediately evacuate the premises.
In addition to calling Liberty Mutual, her insurer, at 5 a.m. on Tuesday to make a preliminary claim, Leder took to the airwaves, sending the company a message via Twitter (@LibertyMutual) to see if it would speed up the process.
"I don't do a lot of personal stuff on Twitter - I use it for business, but every now and then I use it to make people pay attention," says Leder, who has more than 12,000 followers via the Twitter handle @footnoted and runs a website that monitors regulatory filings of public companies.
The company promptly replied to her tweet with a toll-free phone number and email. Even so, Leder says she is still waiting to schedule an appointment with a claims adjuster.
The tree, which was owned by the city, has since been removed by local authorities. However, the house may have suffered serious structural damage.
Without power, Leder is currently holed up with her husband - Scott Cooper and son Soren - at a friend's in nearby Ossining.
The Twitter handles of some big insurers include @libertymutual, @Allstate, @usaa, @StateFarm, @FiremansFund. After reviewing their Twitter feeds, it doesn't seem like many customers are using this form of communication.
Also, depending on where you live and what your emergency entails, you may be eligible for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. You can reach FEMA at 800-621-FEMA (3362), or register online at DisasterAssistance.gov or with any PDA device at m.fema.gov.
IF YOU STILL ARE NOT HAPPY
States have consumer advocates who concentrate on insurance complaints. If you have a problem reaching your insurer or aren't happy with the service you are getting, you can file a complaint in writing or via the web to the office in your state. In New Jersey, it's the Department of Banking and Insurance; in New York, it's the Insurance Division - Consumer Assistance Unit. Even though state offices are closed, call centers are open.
At the New York call center, for example, they've already received several calls about how to complain.