Your Finance: Contacting your insurer

Damage done by superstorm Sandy across the LIRR

Damage done by superstorm Sandy across the LIRR tracks from Island Park on Barnum Island (Nov. 1, 2012) (Credit: Howard Schnapp)

Business

The first piece of post-storm advice after a major weather event like Sandy is always to call your insurance company. But what if your phone isn't working or you don't have Internet service?

What if the insurance company isn't answering the phone, or getting to you as fast as you'd like? Or what if water is still pouring in through the roof and you've got more than enough on your hands right now?

The major insurers that cover the area affected by Sandy are not reporting any particular trouble connecting with homeowners. State Farm says that as of Tuesday evening it had logged 6,000 homeowners policy claims, and 900 car claims. USAA, which has a high number of active-duty military members who may not be home at the moment, says it has taken in 17,000 claims so far, with the most common claim being for tree damage.

But with millions still without power in the Northeast and hundreds of thousands displaced, it will be a while before all those claims filter in, as well as complaints about customer services. The good news is that if you can't communicate right now, that's OK, especially if you had to abandon your property for dry ground.

"The insurance company isn't going to hold it against you if you didn't board up the windows, but I'd get there as soon as I could," says Bob Hunter, director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America. "Don't wait months to file a claim."

If you're at home and there's damage that needs to be repaired right away or it will get worse, the insurance company is actually going to be happy if you buy a tarp to cover a roof, or start pumping your basement. "Absolutely do emergency repairs," says State Farm spokeswoman Holly Anderson.

Just before you start, take pictures and, if possible, video. Be sure to save your receipts.

What if your insurance company has a busy signal? In the areas affected by Sandy, the major insurers -- State Farm, Allstate Corp, Travelers Companies, Chubb and Liberty Mutual -- say they've staffed offices and are accessible to customers either by phone, Internet or mobile app.

If you don't have luck getting through, you can contact most companies via social media.

That's what Michelle Leder did after a 75-foot maple fell on her Peekskill home Monday. She called the local police first, who told her to evacuate, then Liberty Mutual, her insurer, on Tuesday to make a preliminary claim. Then she sent the company a message via Twitter to try to speed up the process.

The company promptly replied to her tweet with a toll-free phone number and email.

The Twitter handles of some big insurers include @libertymutual, @Allstate, @usaa, @StateFarm, @FiremansFund.