Insurers estimate that last week's string of fierce tornadoes that raged through parts of middle America will cost them at least $325 million, making it one of the top five costliest tornado events in recorded history.

The rash of storms and floods killed at least 40 people and razed more than 5,000 homes from Kansas to Tennessee. Some of the tornadoes whipped winds as high as 200 mph.

The American Red Cross reported last week that more than 5,200 families have been impacted by damage to their homes: 2,500 in Missouri, 700 in Kansas, 1,500 in Tennessee, 400 in Arkansas, and 145 in Kentucky. And more dire weather was expected.

The Insurance Information Institute, an educational organization that provides property and casualty insurance information, says that based on a preliminary survey of insurance companies the storm has caused at least $325 million in damage. Costs could rise as the storm systems continue eastward.

The largest tornado-related loss in U.S. history was in May 1999 when tornadoes and storms struck 18 states, including Kansas and Oklahoma, inflicting $1.6 billion in damage.

Homeowners insurance policies typically cover the dwelling, personal property and expenses related to the loss, like temporary housing.

For those who are left without a home after the string of tornadoes - or any other disaster that may strike - it can be an emotional, tumultuous time. But the Institute for Business & Home Safety, a group forged by the insurance industry, says there are a series of steps you should follow to get back on track, get your claims filed and paid, and ultimately rebuild or repair. Those steps are:

  • Report your loss as soon as you can. Contact your agent, broker, or company as quickly as possible to report your damage. Have your policy number handy as well as specific information about the damage involved. Jot down the claim adjuster's name and phone number.
  • Be careful when entering damaged areas. If there is extensive damage to your house, contact local government officials to determine whether your house is safe enough to enter. Report downed power lines or gas leaks to your utility company. Keep electricity off if your house has been flooded.
  • Protect your property from further damage. Board up windows and salvage undamaged items. Ask your insurance company what they will pay for when it comes to protecting your belongings.
  • Make a list. Keep damaged items around until the insurance adjuster has examined them. Photograph or videotape the damaged items in addition to making a list. If you have receipts for the items available, gather them together.
  • Keep your receipts while in temporary housing. If your house is too damaged to live in, keep all your receipts for hotel rooms, meals, and any clothing or personal items you need to purchase while your house is being repaired or rebuilt.
  • Return your claim forms. After you contact your insurance company to notify them of the damage to your home, it is required to send you claim forms within a certain number of days - the number varies among states. Complete the forms and return them as soon as possible.

    If you're not able to live in your home, you'll likely get an immediate advance payment, which will be a check against the total settlement amount. Once agreements are met on the value of the property, additional checks will be issued.

    And if you have a mortgage on your house, the IBHS says the check for repairs to your home will usually be made out to both you and your mortgage lender. Lenders generally put the money in an escrow account and then pay for the repairs as the work is completed. It's a good idea to contact your lender to discuss the contractor's bid and details of the repair process.

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