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What to Know About Car Insurance After a Natural Disaster

Steps to take when flooding or other storm activity ruins your vehicle

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As car owners in parts of the country affected by hurricanes found out find out when the big ones hit, flooding can do a number on your vehicle. The winds and rain from 2018's Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas resulted in the loss of an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 vehicles, according to the trade group Cox Automotive Industry Insights. Even worse, based on Cox’s estimates, were the impacts of 2017’s Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Harvey: Together those storms ruined as many as 1 million vehicles in Texas and the Caribbean.

There are a few things you need to do if you find yourself with a waterlogged — or otherwise storm-damaged — car.   

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First, let’s hope you have optional comprehensive coverage incorporated into your auto insurance policy, meaning your insurance company will cover property damage to your car caused by everything from theft to a volcanic eruption (as Hawaiian car owners discovered recently). Most — 78 percent — of car owners have comprehensive coverage, according to the Insurance Information Institute. But if you are in the minority and only have the most basic liability insurance, which is mandated by every state except New Hampshire, you’re out of luck.

If you do have comprehensive coverage, the claims process is relatively straightforward:

1. Find out if your vehicle is still operable. “If it’s even partly flooded it’s in all likelihood a total loss,” says Michael Barry, senior vice president at the Insurance Information Institute. 

2. Call your insurance company as soon as possible, so the insurance professional or, preferably, your own agent can walk you through the process. They’ll first have you file a proof of claim form, says Barry. Make sure to keep copies of all claim records, and stay on top of the claim (be a squeaky wheel if the company isn't being responsive, in other words).

3. The company will either send an insurance adjuster to come look at your vehicle or ask you to take it to a body shop that’s within the insurer's network. If it is unsalvageable, they’ll determine the market value of your car at the time of the loss. You can do your own research on its estimated value at sites such as AARP Auto Buying Program and Kelley Blue Book’s site.

4. When you do buy a new car, note that some car manufacturers offer special incentives on vehicles for victims of certain larger disasters (you'll need to share your claim records). After the 2017 hurricanes, for instance, BMW offered a $500 Disaster Relief Credit good toward certain certified pre-owned vehicles, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles gave a post-Irma $500 Florida Recovery Bonus for most of its 2017 and 2018 models.

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