How auto insurance works after a natural disaster

In the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, which destroyed hundreds of thousands of cars, drivers likely turned to their auto insurers for help.

But uninsured drivers might be surprised to find that the coverage required by their state does not cover damage caused by floods and other natural disasters. Only 78% of insured drivers are sufficiently covered in the event of a natural disaster, according to the Insurance Information Institute’s analysis of 2018 data from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, the most recent data available.

Here’s how auto insurance works after a natural disaster and what you should do in case the worst happens.

Comprehensive coverage pays for damage caused by natural disasters

Comprehensive coverage covers damage caused by natural disasters, including flood, hail, tornadoes, and forest fires, as well as other causes that do not involve a collision with another vehicle.

It covers up to the current market value of your car, less your full deductible. If your car is considered a total loss, that is, the cost of repairing it is close to or greater than its value, your insurer will make a payment for the current retail value of your car less the deductible.

This coverage is usually optional, unless you drive a rented car or have a car loan. If your current policy doesn’t include comprehensive coverage and you couldn’t cover the cost of repairing or replacing your car after a natural disaster, you can add it. This is probably not necessary if you drive an old car, as the coverage won’t pay off much in the event of a loss, if at all.

Although you can add full coverage at any time, it will not be paid retroactively. You will need it on your policy before your car is damaged for it to take effect.

File comprehensive complaints as quickly as possible

Insurance companies and repair shops can get bogged down in claims after a natural disaster, so file a full claim as quickly as possible. “The sooner your claim arrives, the sooner you are online for help,” says Jessica Castillo, senior claims manager at Metromile.

To speed up the claims process, Castillo suggests providing photos of your car before the damage, if you have any. Many companies allow customers to file complaints online or through a mobile app, which can help customers avoid overloaded phone lines.

If you are unable to cover the cost of your deductible, Castillo still recommends that you have your car examined by a mechanic, even if you are waiting to file a claim. You’ll learn what the repair quote is, and find out if your car can be driven safely while saving for the deductible.

Take extra action if you don’t file a claim immediately. Castillo advises recording the date of the event and how it happened, as well as taking photos of the damage. You should also look for ways to avoid further damage, like drying your car after a flood to prevent mold.

Consider other coverage options

Other coverage options can provide financial peace of mind, according to Dave Powell, vice president of auto claims for Travelers Insurance.

Rental reimbursement coverage will cover the cost of a rental car or public transportation if your car is under repair for a covered claim. “How are you going to organize alternative transportation and how are you going to pay for it” while your car is in the store, asks Powell. If you are unsure, this can be a nice addition to your policy.

If your new car is totaled, new car replacement coverage will pay for a new car of the same make and model, less your deductible. Depending on the insurer, the coverage will pay for cars totaled from 1 to 5 years.

Take precautions and mitigate further damage

Your safety and that of your loved ones must be the top priority in a crisis. But if you’re warned enough of an oncoming storm, these tips can help reduce the risk of car damage:

  • If there is a flood warning, move your car to higher ground, such as the top of a hill or a high level in a parking garage.
  • Park your car in a garage or other shelter to prevent damage from hail or wind.
  • Use sandbags or flood barriers in your garage to prevent water from getting inside.
  • Avoid parking under trees or power lines.
  • If you have multiple cars and need to evacuate, try to get all vehicles out of the disaster area.
  • Do not drive in standing water.

After the storm has passed, check the damage to your car. If it is flooded, do not start it. Instead, disconnect the battery, roll down the windows if possible, and tow the car on dry ground.

Also check that there are no cracks in the windshield or windows and cover any you find with a tarp to prevent further damage to the interior of your car.

Moore is an insurance writer at NerdWallet. Read more

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