The recent tornadoes in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee caused an unprecedented swath of destruction, and left hundreds of people dead or injured. The tornados completely demolished thousands of homes and damaged thousands of others. In the city of Tuscaloosa alone, there are reports of 200-mph winds which swept homes off their foundations.

Once again, those fortunate enough to not have personally experienced the disaster of the horrendous storms are looking for ways to help. An easy way to do so is through the American Red Cross: The Red Cross is providing relief to people across the hardest-hit states, providing shelter, and relief to survivors. To make a donation to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief, visit its online donation page. You can also call 1-800-RED-CROSS or text "REDCROSS" to 90999 to make a $10 donation.

As an attorney who represents folks whose homes and property are devastated by perils such as these windstorms, when I first learn about these catastrophes, my thoughts quickly and naturally turn to the affected property owners. I hope that their insurance companies will step up and do the right thing for their policyholders who have been paying their insurance premiums, praying they never need to file a claim, but believing that if they should, they will be taken care of by their providers. Sadly, we know that is not always the case.

However, there are some things you can and should do when a disaster strikes your property. I don’t think we can ever remind people enough about some of the essential steps to take for a proper recovery on an insurance claim:

  • First, call your insurance company to report the claim. Ask where you can send written notice of the claim, and then send notice of the claim in writing, either by mail, fax or email. A simple written description of the incident and the possible damage will suffice. If the insurance company tells you that written notice is not necessary, do it anyway. You’ll also want to be sure to write down your claim number.
  • If appropriate, ask for an advance. Many insurance companies will routinely make an immediate payment of $1,500.00 to $5,000.00 when the policyholder has had significant property damage. An advance payment can provide you with much-needed emergency cash. Be sure to keep all receipts for which you use this money.
  • Read your insurance policy. Find out what it covers and what it doesn’t. Don’t read just the declarations page. You have to read the whole thing to find out what is covered under your policy. Mark portions of the policy that you don’t understand, and ask the insurance adjuster to explain them. If you have lost your policy in the storm or simply can’t find it, ask your insurance company to send you a copy.
  • If your home is inhabitable due to storm damage, ask your insurance company if your policy pays the expenses your family incurs living elsewhere while the home is repaired. Most homeowner policies reimburse the policyholder for reasonable expenses of establishing and maintaining a second household while the insured residence is being repaired. If your home was completely destroyed, it could take six months or more to rebuild it. That is a long time to live with the in-laws! If the policy does pay “additional living expenses,” then you are entitled to reimbursement for the cost of renting a home similar to your own. Your policy may also reimburse you for the cost of other expenses such as hotels, restaurant meals, laundry, and mileage traveling to and from your temporary home. Once again, be sure to save all of your receipts to give to the insurance company for reimbursement. If you decide to enter into a lease, be sure to get advance approval from your insurance company.
  • Your initial impulse after a disaster damages your insured property is to clean up and throw away the damaged items. Resist that impulse for just a bit, and take the time to record the damage. Take your camera or video camera and record the tree on the roof, the collapsed ceiling in your living room, the rain-soaked mattresses, furniture and books. Record as much as possible; too many pictures are better than too few. Once your home is cleaned up, it will be easier for you to explain to the insurance company exactly what kind of damage you had if you have pictures. Do this even if the insurance adjuster comes out immediately to view the damage. Insurance companies often switch adjusters during the life of the claim. You cannot rely on the first adjuster to adequately document your damage.
  • Inventory the damage to the building and contents. Write down everything you think is wrong with your home and give that list to the insurance adjuster. If there is a new crack in the ceiling or a leak in the kitchen, point that out. Make a list of everything that was damaged inside your home — furniture, computers, picture frames, and so on. Again – take a picture of everything. Do not discard anything before the insurance adjuster has a chance to look at it. Ask the adjuster before throwing anything away. It seems sensible to drag unsalvageable items to the curb for disposal, however, the insurance company could dispute that you owned, say, a 52-inch plasma TV if it’s already gone.
  • Communicate with the insurance company in writing. If you have a telephone or in-person conversation with the insurance adjuster, confirm it in writing afterwards. Write or email the insurance company to get a status on your claim. This prevents misunderstandings. In the confusion that follows a major catastrophe, things sometimes fall through the cracks, so it is good to have things in writing.
  • Make notes regarding what happens with your claim. Write down the date of each time you call your insurance company, the name of the person who took your call, and what was said on the call. Also note the date each time an adjuster comes to your property or contacts you –get the name of the adjuster, and write down exactly what was said or agreed.
  • Take immediate action to remedy any condition on your property which could lead to further damage. For instance, if you have a hole in your roof, put a tarp over it until you can make permanent repairs. Insurance policies generally require the policyholder to mitigate his damages. Discuss with your insurance adjuster whether the policy will pay for temporary repairs.
  • Provide the insurance company with the documentation it requests. Insurance policies require the policyholder to cooperate with the investigation of the claim, which includes producing certain documents or papers on request. If the policyholder fails to produce the requested documents, the insurance company may be able to refuse to pay the insurance claim on that basis. Sometimes the insurance company may request a “proof of loss,” which is a sworn statement setting out the amount of the loss. Merlin Law Group recommends that you obtain legal advice before submitting a proof of loss.
  • You should also obtain legal advice if the insurance company asks you to submit to an Examination under Oath. Most policies allow the insurance company to require the policyholder to be examined under oath. That means that you will be giving testimony as if you are in court, and the insurance company will typically send a lawyer to question you. Insurance companies generally do not ask for an examination under oath unless there is a serious question about whether the insurance claim should be paid because of fraud or other issues. For that reason alone, we recommend that you obtain legal advice before submitting to an Examination under Oath.
  • Demand frequent updates from your insurance company on your claim. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. In turn, keep the insurance company updated with your contact information.

Most insurance claims are initially handled to the policyholder’s satisfaction. However, the policyholder often discovers damage for which the insurance company failed to pay, or that it will cost more to repair the damage than the insurance company paid. If the insurance company denies or underpays your claim, immediately consult an experienced insurance attorney.