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Insurance Claims After a Disaster | Mary Biever | One Writing Mother

Insurance Claims After a Disaster

This is a column I wrote 5 years ago after Hurricane Katrina to help victims.  Perhaps Nashville friends can use it now.

This Too Will Pass
It does get better. Four years ago, our home burned, and the following are things I learned which might help.

Safety first: Loved ones matter more than things. Don’t risk yourself for any belonging. Make sure tetanus shots are updated. If/when you work on your house, wear pants with knees in them.

Secure the perimeter: If you can, put temporary patches on holes in roofs or windows. It might help prevent further damage.

Educate yourself: What are insurance laws in your state? How long do you have to file a claim? Who is your state’s insurance commissioner, and how do you contact him if your insurance company stalls you? Do you have replacement insurance coverage or actual insurance coverage? If you have replacement insurance coverage, how does it work and what must you do (how are receipts handled, etc.)? How is your insurance organized? Ours was divided into 3 categories: temporary housing (save receipts from meals); content replacement; and rebuilding our home. How much coverage do you have? If your house is older, do you have code insurance? In our city, older homes must be rebuilt to current code. Without code insurance, this is out of the homeowner’s pocket. With our company, the actual value of a lost item was calculated with a formula they had which calculated the difference between replacement cost and the age of the item. That ten-year-old couch you had when you first got married isn’t worth much.

Simplify your life: If you have suffered a major loss, you have just inherited an intense, temporary part-time job that will seem to be full time. The better you organize it and the harder you work, the faster and more fully your family will recover from the disaster.

Delegate: Who in your family has which strengths, talents, and time? I get excited at the prospect of putting together a binder, so I inherited the claim. My husband is stronger at finishing tasks, and his job the last year of the claim was pushing me so I wouldn’t quit, which I wanted to do on several occasions. Teams accomplish more than solo acts.

A Quick Guide to Organization

You will need to have a portable, packable office, so buy the following first so you can organize better as you go.

File bucket (with handle) to be packed with the following:

Top compartment:
post-it notes
cheap calculator
paper clips
binder clips
section or envelope for business cards

Bottom compartment:
Baby wipes
Latex gloves
Trash bags
Ziploc bags
Multi-subject notebook
Anti-bacterial hand wash which doesn’t need water
Pocket folders
Camera with extra film rolls (or batteries)
Paper towels

Cooler: Buy water bottles and ready to eat snacks. A large hard cooler can also become a chair.

First, organize the notebook, with a bright, gaudy, easy-to-find cover. I wrote any phone numbers I might need on the back of the notebook. One section of the notebook became to-do lists. Another section was for claim items. A third section was for prices for replacement items and rebuilding. A fourth section was to list items dumped during pack-out (explained below). As you sign papers and get receipts, you can quickly throw them into the bucket to organize later. Choose a bucket with the brightest, gaudiest lid you can find so you will spot it more quickly.

Fireproof cash box. At the end of each evening working on the claim, I moved receipts/valuable papers from the file box to the cash box.

Photocopier: If you don’t have a small one, find the fastest place you can make copies because you’ll be busy making lots of them.

Febreze in bulk: (If you have a fire) We found generic giant-size bottles of Febreze worked well. We used a lot of it and also dryer sheets in removing odors.

Getting to work on the claim: Learning to use certain computer programs is essential. I used Access and Excel and recreated our insurance company’s forms. The following features were the ones I used the most: filters, find, queries, sorts, and reports. Over two years, my database/spreadsheet probably saved me over 100 hours of time on our content claim. If I hadn’t used those programs, we wouldn’t have completed our claim so thoroughly and wouldn’t have recovered as many of our belongings. Our first claim was 60 pages long.

Our insurance company re-entered the claim into their system and resorted all items. If this happens to you, doublecheck items. Our company made minor mistakes on the original claim which, when tallied together, amounted to several hundred dollars in our favor.

Itemize, itemize, itemize: Mentally go through every room of your house. I took the notebook with the content subject area and wrote a room at the top of a page. Then I mentally went through that room and listed what was in it. Go through every cabinet, drawer, and closet. Count every extension cord, socket, etc. What was hiding on the top drawer of the guest closet? If you keep the file box with you, you can note things as you think of them. If you purchase items from a specialty shop, contact them and ask if they still have records of purchases. Stores gave us records of Thomas the Train toy purchases we made for our son along with duplicate receipts of custom framing jobs I had ordered.

In order to receive the difference between actual and replacement value, we had to purchase replacement items and submit receipts. I numbered receipts and kept photocopies in a folder.

The Rebuilding Steps

Our home wasn’t completely destroyed. The rebuilding happened in 3 steps.

Pack-out: House contents are sorted between those which are salvageable and those which must be dumped. A clean-up crew pulled belongings from the house and told me whether items went in their truck or to the dumpster. For items to go into the dumpster, I noted them in my notebook section and also took photographs of them in sets, in case I needed more reference later. For the photos, try to take pictures of brand labels, etc. Be as specific as possible. If a shelf held 10 cups, 8 plates, and 4 bowls, list them exactly like that. Brand names and age will help too.

During this pack-out stage, you will probably already have to begin to make purchasing decisions for the rebuilding phase. Four days after our fire, we chose replacement kitchen cabinets because we were told they would take the longest to arrive. As we shopped for items, we deliberately made choices which were not special order. At the same time, don’t rush too quickly. We lost all of the blinds in our home and happened to still know the people from whom we purchased the house. They confirmed the old blinds were custom made, and as a consequence, we replaced the blinds with new custom treatments. Get ready to make several choices quickly — in our case, our biggest choices included doors, blinds, paint colors & types, floors, light fixtures, ceiling tiles, faucets, sinks, cabinets, wallpaper, borders, furniture, window treatments, and appliances.

Demolition: After pack-out, areas that must be rebuilt are demolished.

Rebuilding: The demolished areas are rebuilt. Try to be present as much as possible during this step.

Return items caution: After rebuilding, items which were taken out to be cleaned/salvaged were returned. Pay close attention during this step. Some things which may have been taken to be cleaned may not return in the same condition in which they left. My son had 6-month-old bedroom furniture which returned with smoke stains. We were told if we let the movers carry items into our home, we were accepting their condition. Richard and I both went through all furniture and large items to check them and refused some items.

What Helped the Most

We were luckier than most because we were able to return to our home three months after it burned. Our crew was on the job almost every single day after the fire. We made it our business to be there, with them, as much as possible. The following are some things that helped us the most.

Help from friends: We couldn’t have survived without the help from friends. One friend, an engineer, went through our home after the fire to evaluate the condition of ceilings and walls which our contractor originally said didn’t need to be replaced. The engineer said a bedroom ceiling had been warped with water damage. A brother-in-law who is a gas lineman helped us push for safer replacement gas lines in our home. We argued both items, which were decided in our favor. When they demolished the ceiling of the bedroom in question, they discovered mold growing. We’re more than grateful we pushed for its destruction instead of going with their first opinion.

Hospitality: We chose to view the fire as an opportunity to welcome workers. Every day we had workers at our home, we provided a cooler of iced water bottles and soft drinks for them to drink. The workers appreciated the gesture. We wanted them to feel welcome and respected in our home. Our hospitality inspired them to work harder and help us find ways to rebuild our home better.

Witness: I collect crosses and crucifixes that are mounted throughout our home. During the fire, the walls behind those crosses didn’t have smoke stains. For weeks after the fire, every room had at least one light-colored cross on a wall. Almost every worker who came into our home commented at least once that we went to church, and we had some great conversations with them.

Negotiation: We didn’t rebuild to match exactly what we had had before. Rooms switched purposes, so when we returned we would think of the house as a new beginning. An old storage room was converted into a larger office for Richard. We added extra insulation wherever possible, upgraded light fixtures, and put new ceilings into part of our basement.

At the same time, we tried to remodel as simply as possible so we could return home faster. Our insurance company gave us some wiggle room. For example, our upstairs carpet was ruined and removed, and we discovered oak floors beneath them. We negotiated with insurance that instead of their replacing our upstairs flooring, Richard refinished our oak floors himself at our expense, and we purchased flooring for our basement on the insurance claim instead.

Replace Slowly: If your state insurance laws and insurance company will let you, replace non-essential items slowly. This time, you can buy exactly what you want. We used a card table and then a loaned kitchen table for over a year before we finally found the table we wanted. If the kids had had a preschool card game set, we replaced it with an older grade level set instead.

What to Do with Kids: Our kids were 5 and 7 when our home burned. We homeschool and had gotten two weeks into our school year when the fire began. Their schoolbooks, my husband’s business, and our clothes are all that we salvaged. The first weeks, when everything was most dangerous, friends kept the kids. After that, we tried to involve them as much as possible. We let both kids make the choices (within reason) for their new bedrooms. They learned several new vocabulary words: receipt, claim, toxic, demolition, and more. For two months, their formal school day began at 6:30AM and ended around 9:00AM so I could go to our home and monitor reconstruction.

The best thing both kids learned from the fire was to work quickly and efficiently. That skill is one they still have, four years later.

Don’t look back: You will make mistakes, lose things, and forget others. One mistake we made was miscommunicating paint colors. I asked about one color for our upstairs, and Richard thought I only wanted it for our bedroom instead of our entire first floor. (He happened to hate that shade of white but thought he could stand it in one room.)

Some losses will be harder than others. Richard’s hardest loss was his portfolio. He’s an artist who lost 30 years of artwork. During our pack-out, I grew numb and tired one morning and paid little attention to a metal box that was thrown into a dumpster. That night, I realized it was a keepsake box with every memento of a lost baby. Richard offered to dumpster dive until he found it, but I refused. His safety was more important than memories. We had to let the dead bury the dead and move forward. The next morning, as I arrived at the house with our kids, a driver was hauling the loaded dumpster to our landfill.

Have fun: Somehow, some way, find ways to add humor or fun to a difficult process. After that dumpster was removed, another one replaced it. While it was still empty, before our work crew arrived, the kids and I made a target practice game inside the fifteen-foot dumpster. We found some plastic items ready to be tossed. The three of us went into the empty dumpster and threw them — 10 points for the back wall and 5 points for the sides. It helped vent all our frustration and defuse a rough morning for me.

We have a large fenced backyard, and the kids enjoyed playing outside a lot during reconstruction.

Life continues: It’s four years later now. The closets are full again, and you could never tell there was a fire. The kids rarely speak of the minor disaster that consumed our lives for almost two years. It’s still a watershed, and we measure time in terms of “before the fire” and “after the fire.”

We thank God for the many friends who prayed, helped, and carried us through the storm of trouble so we could rebuild our home and begin again.

5 Responses to “Insurance Claims After a Disaster”

  1. David Holland May 8, 2010 at 12:31 pm #


    Excellent article with great detail. I’m sure that this will bells someone. It already blessed me even though I have not experienced anything like that. I hope that I don’t! But this is great preparation.


    • Kaden March 9, 2017 at 2:46 am #

      That’s the percfet insight in a thread like this.

  2. Santana Langer June 6, 2010 at 12:36 pm #

    Is this your original blog!? I’m pretty sure I remember you from a while ago..used to scan your last blog on a regular basis. Not positive if I’m guessing of the same individual though!

    • marybiever June 19, 2010 at 1:18 pm #

      Yes, it is my original blog. I’ve written different places over the years for different people.

  3. Beverly Klima June 7, 2010 at 9:39 pm #

    An Educator always educates! This is absolutely wonderful information; however, I hope I never have to use it! Take care, and I enjoy your articles very much!

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