Post-Disaster Tips

Best practices for insurance claims following a natural disaster

Insurance claims can be challenging.

542,000,000. That is the number of results in Google when you search for “insurance claims” today.

How do I know that insurance claims are tough? I used to investigate residential and commercial real estate damage and provide forensic assessments to insurance carriers and attorneys.

From Hurricane Irene to Sandy, the Moore, Oklahoma tornadoes, or the West Texas fertilizer plant explosion, I know first hand what “ground zero” feels like in the aftermath of a catastrophe.

As a property owner you may only experience a disaster or insurance claim once or twice a year, if that.

The summer of 2013 was crazy. I was making multiple trips a week from Dallas, TX to Moore, OK. Why? Because at the time, I worked for a forensic consulting firm that evaluated storm damage for insurance carriers and attorneys.

Between visiting 3 to 4 buildings a day, and driving 3 hours each way, the days were long and exhausting. Try drawing up a 2,000 square foot house, taking plumbness  measurements and photos in about 2 hours with a 2-person team. It takes lots of practice and a little bit of skill.

But guess what, we are not all perfect. And in the end, humans (especially me) make mistakes.

Working for Roger (name changed for privacy), a national general adjuster for a larger insurance carrier, was always fun and challenging. He was an intense individual with a dry sense of humor. Like most adjusters who spend countless hours on the road chasing disasters, he had seen and experienced a lot.

On this day, I was wrapping up our third site visit, a one-story home just outside the path of total destruction from the EF5 tornado.

Over four years later, the details are hard to remember, but the one thing I do remember is that I was tired. After walking out of the attic (where I was taking photos of the roof framing), I felt excited that we just about wrapped up with our site visit and documentation. As I began walking across ceiling joists to the attic hatch and ladder, I took a step to the ladder.

But here’s where my day took an unexpected turn for the worse. Instead of stepping into a 2×3 attic opening onto the ladder, I stepped onto a 4×8 sheet of drywall that did not have insulation on it.

Fatigue from the long hours, excitement that I was almost done – who knows why – but my focus was off.

Instinct took over as I started to fall through the ceiling; my arms went out as wide as they could, I let go of my camera, and thankfully, I was able to hook two ceiling joists under my armpits. Instead of falling to the concrete slab below. I was now dangling with my upper body  in the attic, and my lower body in the garage.

Looking back, I was lucky. The adjuster, Roger, was no where in shouting distance. My teammate was outside making final checks on our data.

Pulling myself up and actually finding the ladder this time, I let the adjuster know that we needed to add extra ceiling repairs to the scope of work and moved on.

After the site visit and data gathering, it’s report writing time. Turns out when you are taking 200 plus photos per site and visiting three or more sites in a day, you have a lot of information to manage. Especially if you are on a one-day on, two-days off rotation between the field and the office.

Needless to say, it can be intense.

As it would happen on a particular report, my opinion was that the amount of damage to the home we observed was very minimal. While my opinion was based on solid data and site analysis, I inserted a picture of the wrong house in the report.

The homeowner was in the process of disputing my findings and of course Roger was not happy since “his” engineer couldn’t even identify the correct house in the report, how could his opinion be correct.

Are there ‘hitmen’ out there doing dirty work for insurance carriers by writing reports or scopes of work that unnecessarily limit the damage related to the storm? Possibly.

Are there contractors taking advantage of building owners and insurance carriers? Most likely.

Are there insureds trying to defraud carriers? According to the internet, yes.

So why share these two stories from Moore, OK now? Because property owners need to know a few key things:

Be nice.

Everyone in the aftermath of a catastrophic disaster is resource constrained and sleep deprived. Think about your life before the storm. How easy is it to deal with pleasant people versus those that lose their cool, yell, scream, and basically behave like fools?

Be patient.

Depending on the area affected, the number of claims will pile up. ‘Take a number’ and get in line. That number is your claim number.

But being patient does not mean you have to be a doormat. You should follow up, especially if people (adjusters, contractors, property managers, etc) give you a deadline on when certain reports or information will be complete.

Document like you are a CSI detective. In the world of insurance, paperwork is abundant, and pictures are worth a 1,000 words. Really.

Take lots of photos.

Write down the names, phone numbers, and companies of people you talk to or meet with. Track deadlines and deliverables.

Not sure where to start? Just remember — who, what, where, when.

While speed is key to getting your asset returned to a “pre-loss condition,” make sure you are going in the right direction with the right team. Clear proposals, scopes of work, budgets, timelines are critical to managing expectations.

Got questions?

Got a question related to your claim, scope of work, contractor’s proposal, or contractor? Great! Drop us a line.

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