WASHINGTON Standing knee-deep in your wet basement is no time to find out that you're not insured for floods, but homeowners up and down the East Coast are experiencing that double trouble right now.
The short, unhappy answer to most of their questions is "no, you're probably not covered for flood damage." Homes located in flood plains probably do have federal flood insurance; it's typically required by mortgage lenders. But the vast majority of other homes are covered by private homeowners policies that specifically exclude flood but cover wind, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
That's a distinction likely to lead to legal battles in the months and years to come: If wind blows away your basement door and the water flows in, is that flood damage or wind damage?
Here's a quick guide to what is and isn't covered and how to proceed if Irene messed up your house, your car, your garage or your landscape.
Q. What about the water?
Not all water damage is flood damage. If rain poured through a hole in your roof and soaked your new mattress, that typically would be covered. But if your whole house is a wet mess, you've got problems, suggested Aviva Abramovsky, a law professor and insurance expert at Syracuse University. Insurance companies typically have the right to deny claims for wind and rain damages if they occurred concurrently with flood damage that isn't covered, she said. "That can come as a really horrible surprise."
If you've got big wind and water damage, file the claim. The insurance company is likely to send out two adjusters to sort it out.
Q: I do have flood insurance, now what?
Get busy! Unless the Federal Emergency Management Administration decides to extend it, there's a 30-day deadline for you to file your claim.
"This is of utmost importance," cautioned Soren Gisleson, a New Orleans trial lawyer who says he has "beaucoup" experience with Katrina cases. "If you miss the deadline by so much as one day, you'll be forever barred from filing suit."
Those flood insurance claims should be as specific and detailed as possible, with actual contractor estimates of the costs involved in making your home and your possessions whole.
Q: My house is dry, but my car got flooded. Now what?
Your auto policy should cover the car, if you have comprehensive coverage. And, incidentally, if your car was in a garage and it was damaged, your homeowners' policy would apply to that. So the same wind/rain/flood coverage that applies to your house would apply to your garage or other buildings on your property.
Q: I still have a big hole in my roof and the adjuster won't get here until Thursday. Now what?
Cover the hole! Your policy should cover temporary repairs that you make to protect your home from further damage. It's a good idea to take a lot of pictures first, said Mike Chaney, the Mississippi insurance commissioner and chairman of the property and casualty insurance committee of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. That way you'll be able to substantiate your claim for damages.
And most homeowners policies also cover hotel rooms or temporary shelter if your home is unlivable due to covered damage.
Q: Our neighborhood is a mess of trees and limbs. Who's responsible?
Your homeowners policy should cover it if your tree hit your house and caused damage. If your tree fell on your neighbor's house, his homeowners policy should cover it. If a tree fell in the backyard and caused no structural damage, you'll have to pay for the cleanup yourself.
Q: My power's been out since Saturday, and my freezer is full of summer pesto and homemade tomato sauce. Can I file a claim for that?
Yes, but don't expect to be rewarded for all of your hard work. Most policies limit the amount they'll pay for food spoilage to between $250 to $500 per appliance, says the Insurance Information Institute. If that's your only loss, it may not even rise above your deductible.
Q. I have a pretty high deductible. Should I file a claim anyway?
That's tricky. The insurance industry says yes: Damages might turn out to be more costly than you think, and if a second storm comes along and causes more trouble, the first deductible might satisfy both claims. But consumer representatives are more cautious: "You have to do a cost benefit analysis," said Gisleson. "If you file, it's going to increase your premiums or you'll get dropped over the next couple of years." He recommends that consumers with small claims that barely exceed their deductibles don't bother to file them.
Q. Could I really lose my insurance coverage?
Possibly, but probably not any time soon. When State Farm tried to pull out of hurricane-prone Florida, the state's insurance regulator stepped in and pressed the company to stay. In 2009, the firm compromised by dropping 125,000 of its 810,000 residential policies and raised rates 14.8 percent on the rest. The areas hit by Irene aren't, for the most part, hurricane prone, and the insurance companies -- seeing their share prices rise today -- still need to write policies to make money. "They can't pull out of everywhere," said Chaney.
(Editing by Beth Gladstone)