Tips on Recovering from a Natural Disaster

Cleaning up after a natural disaster in the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans

Photo by Flickr user niels_olson (Creative Common license BY-SA 2.0)

Cleanup after a natural disaster can be expensive. How can those with limited funds afford to make repairs?

If your area was declared a federal emergency area, contact your your local FEMA agency regarding the possibility of financial help. Some of the FEMA loans given to Katrina homeowners were later forgiven. Due to the possibility of toxic mold, homeowners don't have the luxury of just ignoring water damage. The SBA provides low interest disaster loans to homeowners and renters. When widespread flooding occurred in New Hampshire, the SBA lent money to some of my clients to repair their homes because insurance coverage was not available for flood damage. These homeowners could not have afforded to repair their homes any other way. Sometimes the loans were secured by a mortgage on their home but often the loans were unsecured.

If there's a hurricane where damage is caused by both wind and water, don't accept as gospel an insurance company's denial of coverage. Insurance companies tend to resolve doubts over coverage in their own self interest. After Katrina hit New Orleans, many insurance companies denied coverage due to a flooding exclusion in the policy despite the fact that coverage existed for wind damage. When the cause of damage is not crystal clear, be proactive and review the homeowner's policy carefully. If there is an ambiguity in the policy over coverage, courts generally resolve this doubt against insurance companies and require coverage to be provided to a homeowner. Don't be a victim.

The stress from a natural disaster can leave people vulnerable and may make them easier targets for fraud. What are some red flags to look out for to avoid scams?

Desperation definitely makes people vulnerable to being scammed. The biggest red flag I see for people in financial distress is getting scammed over the internet. Internet websites are designed to offer help specific to a particular disaster. The most common disaster my clients face is a foreclosure. I regularly talk to homeowners who have paid $2,500 to a web business promising to stop the foreclosure only to realize after the check had cleared that it was an empty promise. Check out the business on the Better Business Bureau's website and run a google search to look for complaints against this business. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

What are some steps people can take to protect assets before a natural disaster?

Take video of every room of your home including any valuable items, workshop power tools or family heirlooms. Keep a separate written list of these in a water-tight safe deposit box.

Know your insurance coverage and what you have for coverage. Call your insurance agent to clarify any questions you may have about what type of coverage your policy will provide for the type of damage expected from a pending storm. Find out what your out-of-pocket deductible is. Does your insurance provide alternative housing payments in the event your home becomes unlivable?

After a storm has hit, take another video immediately of the damage that occurred. Do the minimum in repairs necessary before a damage assessment is done by your insurance company. If your area was declared a federal disaster area, contact FEMA to discuss what type of help is available.

Sometimes important documents and paperwork are lost during a natural disaster. At the same time, some scammers pose as fraudulent government officials and ask for personal information. How can someone protect themselves from identity theft?

Put documents in a water-tight safe deposit box. Identity theft usually occurs by someone having access to your social security number, date of birth, name and address. If someone wants to verify your social security, only provide the last 4 digits. This is a unique enough number that this along with your license will show that you are who you say you are. If someone purporting to be a government official insists on more, find out where they are headquartered locally and arrange to drop it off at the office. Obtain a phone number (not a cell phone number) where you can verify their identity.

Rebuilding after natural disaster

Photo by Flickr user wcn247

What are some environmental hazards that can come out of a natural disaster?

Toxic mold from flood damage. Many insurance policies now have exclusions covering toxic mold that festers because flood damage is not repaired in a timely fashion. If toxic mold proceeds far enough, it may be cheaper to just knock your house down than try to repair it and may make the eventual sale of your home impossible.

Natural disasters can take an emotional toll on a person. What are some ways to cope with the aftermath of such catastrophic events?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a common reaction to natural disasters and can persist long after the disaster itself has been resolved. Hoping things go back to normal is not always enough even for those who have never felt the need to engage in therapy in the past. Scores of research studies have indicated that EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapy is particularly effective for resolving PTSD symptoms. EMDR has been used by returning Iraq veterans, victims of rape and after natural disasters to resolve the perpetual feeling of crisis that lingers long afterwards. It provides a way to process the underlying traumatic events and find a way to move beyond them.

Are there online resources you can recommend for people to learn more about natural disaster recovery?

Federal Emergency Management Agency --
Office of Disaster Assistance at the Small Business Administration --

Richard Gaudreau
Attorney Richard Gaudreau is a New Hampshire based lawyer specializing in bankruptcy law and consumer lawsuits against predatory collectors for abuse of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. He is certified as a Consumer Bankruptcy Specialist by the American Board of Certification and is the New Hampshire Chair of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys.