As the wildfires in the Santa Rosa, Napa, and Sonoma area in Northern California continue to affect thousands of families, the toll of destruction to structures today nears 9,000 separate buildings. Most families, forced out of their homes, had little to no time to prepare for what chaos unfolded. Leaving thousands empty handed and nothing to possibly salvage in the ruins they used to call home, many are without any guidance as to what will happen next and how they will get back to what they call “normal” after battling Nuns Fire, Tubbs Fire, and Atlas Fire.
Below are steps to take when considering what’s next after your home was affected by the California wildfires.
1) Contact your home insurance agency
After contacting your family and friends to let them know you are safe, the next call you should make as a homeowner should be to your insurance agency. It is imperative to begin the documentation process as soon as possible in order begin your insurance claim. The earlier you start this process is the earlier you’re able to receive some type of monetary relief, which for most people will be how they are able to sustain themselves until they can get back on their feet. Insurance companies are also able to lend guidance to what will happen going forward and what types of timelines to expect for aid.
If you do not have access to your policy it is important to ask your insurer for a copy in order to review what will be covered and what policy limits you are entitled to. Although insurers will likely send a substantial check quickly to pay for initial immediate expenses, many homeowners will quickly realize they are underinsured for an entire cleanup and complete rebuild of their homes. Having a clear understanding of what is covered and how much it is covered for will allow for rational planning of your future.
2) Contact local and federal agencies for assistance
There are many local disaster relief agencies in the Santa Rosa, Napa, and Sonoma area and federal disaster relief agencies actively seeking out individuals and families in need of assistance.
- Contact your local Red Cross. While they may have their hands full, the Red Cross continues to provide individual aid to thousands of needy families along with aid to groups and neighborhoods. The Red Cross also urges families in the area to register on their “safe and well” website (link to https://safeandwell.
communityos.org/zf/safe/add) in order to let loved ones know you are out of the danger zone.
- Use the RedCross.com (link to http://www.redcross.org/get-
help/disaster-relief-and- recovery-services/find-an- open-shelter ) website to find local shelters in your area.
- Apply to the DisasterAssistance.Gov website ( link to https://www.
disasterassistance.gov/get- assistance) for FEMA assistance and use their Recovery Help page ( link to https://www. disasterassistance.gov/get- assistance/other-recovery-help ) for lists of informational resources.
- Use the Sonoma County community informational website (link to http://sonomacounty.ca.gov/
Public-Safety/News/Community- Information/ ) and their Local Assistance Center page ( link to http://sonomacounty.ca.gov/ EOC-and-PIO/Fires-October- 2017/Services/Local- Assistance-Center/)
3) Document your losses and expenses
As insurance companies evaluate thousands of policies reflecting over one billion dollars in losses during the deadly North Bay Wildfires, homeowners are faced with the daunting process of recouping their losses. While insurers’ capital, also affected by recent hurricanes, continues to spread thinner and thinner throughout each policy, the speed for policy reimbursement will also likely be slowed. Having as much documentation prepared early will allow for faster reimbursements and final settlements.
Keeping all of your possessions itemized before a wildfire damages your home may be a hindsight thought at this point so it is important to take time to record whatever is still readily available. Be mindful of the fact that insurers will only pay out for what you can prove that you owned as many people look to take advantage of the system. If you’re missing complete records of everything you lost, which is the majority of those affected, you will need to be creative in order to produce as many records as possible.
Check your history of purchases through websites you frequent such as Amazon, Home Depot, and NewEgg.
Call department stores to see if they have copies of receipts available in their systems.
Comb through your bank and credit card statements for all viable purchases you can report.
Examine older photos of your home that you have access to, as most insurers will accept photos as proof of ownership.
Over 175,000 individuals are scrambling to find necessities to keep them afloat while they have been displaced in the Northern California area. Between paying for temporary living expenses, food, hygiene products, clothes, transportation costs, and everything else it is easy to become overwhelmed and lose track of expenses. Home insurers cover all of these expenses so keeping an organized and detailed list will help recuperate these purchases. Using a cloud-based spreadsheet application such as Google Sheets (link to sheets.google.com) will guarantee you will always have access to and won’t lose track of what you’re paying for.
4) Speak with contractors about estimates before accepting insurance payouts
California insured homeowners are entitled to dispute their settlements up to two years after receiving compensation, however, understanding what it will take financially to rebuild your home early will allow for a speedy and methodical plan of action. Homeowner insurers will provide scope of loss reports to outline their payout structures, having an established contracting agency in the Santa Rosa, Sonoma, and Napa area look over the report to give a second opinion before accepting the settlement to ensure the numbers correlate with current construction costs is a must. The contracting agency may argue that with current demand and costs of material the insurers’ price may not be enough for a complete build with the same quality. Reputable contractors will have prices per square footage for a new build that will give you a general estimate of what it will cost to get back to where you were. Accepting a settlement after a second opinion from a contractor will save time, effort, and money by having to go through the initial construction process only once rather than accepting the first offer insurers provide and then having to dispute it after construction planning has been done.