Money Lessons From Hurricane Sandy
Having an emergency kit is important, but that's not all you need when disaster strikes
Caroline Mayer is a consumer reporter who spent 25 years working for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @consumermayer
Courtesy of the author
Having heard the dire predictions, I followed my own Next Avenue advice ("Frankenstorm: How To Prepare Yourself For Disaster") and stocked up on water, batteries, candles and canned food for my Arlington, Va., house. My car had a full tank of gas, and I knew where extra blankets were, in case my husband and I needed them. I felt prepared and was enjoying my forced day of rest, mostly curled up reading.
And then: At 5:55 p.m. Monday, as a result of five inches of rain and gale-force winds, a large white oak tree fell on our house. Minutes later, its older and larger red oak neighbor crashed to the ground across the street.
(MORE: One Good Thing About Hurricane Sandy)
Fortunately, no one was hurt and the effects appear to be relatively minor, at least so far — just some roof and electrical woes for our house plus a little damage to one neighbor’s fence and another’s lawn irrigation system.
But the tree destruction gave me a graduate course in emergency preparedness. These are the two valuable lessons I learned:
Lesson 1: If a natural disaster is coming, make sure you have key contact information on hand. That way, you’ll be ready to spring into action and take care of any necessary calls, tweets or emails.
I’d recommend you make this list today (who knows when the next disaster will strike?) and keep it in your cell phone’s contacts list and on a piece of paper in your wallet and in your car’s glove compartment. Don’t make the mistake I did and count on having power or the Internet to find these numbers in an emergency.
These are the companies and professionals whose phone numbers we needed in the first 24 hours after Sandy struck and the ones you should have on your post-disaster list:
- Homeowner’s insurance company.
- Power company hotline.
- Phone company hotline.
- Water utility.
- Tree removal service.
- County road-repair service.
We didn’t need a plumber or roofer immediately, but those belong on the list.
It’s also a good idea to get the email addresses and Twitter handles of these companies, since they may be better able to respond via email and social media if their phone lines are down or jammed. And if your parents have a home, it’s smart to have the numbers, email addresses and Twitter handles for the companies and professionals who could handle their problems, too.
My husband and I carry cards in our wallet from the insurance company that covers our house and cars (USAA), thinking we might need them for potential auto claims. They wound up coming in handy for calling in our homeowners' claim.
For tree service, we called my brother, who had used a good company, Growing Earth Tree Care, years ago. We learned from this experience that it helps to have an existing relationship with a tree company if you need quick service after a disaster. Growing Earth didn't just show up promptly; they were also able to expedite the process by dealing directly with their power company contacts (since live wires were involved).
(MORE: Disaster Rx: Try a Little Tenderness)
We don’t have a reliable, topnotch electrician, so we began calling highly ranked ones in a great, local publication, Washington Consumers' Checkbook. It took about a dozen calls to find one who could come quickly and repair the broken electrical meter and hookup to the house — a prerequisite for the power company connecting us back to the grid.
When you need to find a good electrician fast, assuming you have Internet, you might consult Angie’s List, the website where consumers rate service professionals. If you’re not a member, this could be a good time to become one. The cost ranges from $17 to $62.40 a year, depending on where you live. You can join online or call (888) 888-5478.
Another idea: If your neighborhood has a list serve or an email list, start soliciting recommendations now for future use.
Lesson 2: If you have a problem due to a disaster, call for assistance immediately. Initially my husband was reluctant to begin making the calls, thinking it would be better to wait until the storm abated so we could assess the damage in daylight. His feeling was, without a lot of specifics, it would be futile to file an insurance claim or seek remedies for our damage.
I disagreed. He gave in, and by 6:30 p.m., our insurer had set our claim in motion and a call center representative thanked us for calling even though we lacked extensive information. He said that had we waited until morning, we probably wouldn’t have gotten through. (According to a Reuters article on handling Hurricane Sandy insurance matters, as of Tuesday evening, State Farm had already logged 6,000 homeowners policy claims and 900 car claims.)
As soon as we hung up with our insurer, we called the tree company. That’s one reason we jumped to the top of its priority list.
How to Avoid Getting Scammed
Finally, a few words of caution. Government agencies and consumer watchdogs are beginning to warn about the inevitable disaster scams that often arise in times like these.
The Federal Trade Commission encourages homeowners who plan to hire a new contractor to check references and ask for a copy of its general liability and worker’s compensation insurance.
The Better Business Bureau says that if you have storm damage, before agreeing to have any home or yard repairs done, you should insist on getting a written contract. Also, the bureau says, never pay the entire cost upfront in cash; that leaves you open to the possibility the contractor will flee with your money without doing the work. At most, put down one-third of the cost.
And if you’d like to send money to aid Hurricane Sandy victims, Charity Navigator, a nonprofit rating organization, advises you do so through a charity with a proven track record of success dealing with this type of disaster in the region where it occurred.
Avoid fly-by-night charities, telemarketers and email solicitors springing up ostensibly to raise money, too. After Hurricane Katrina, the FBI says, 4,000 websites were created to steal the identity and money of unsuspecting donors. You don't want to become a Hurricane Sandy charity victim.