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What should homeowners do after a tornado?

The sooner you file the claim and the more responsive you are to the insurance provider, the faster you’ll be able to get assistance.

Taylor Paris searches for valuables in the wreckage of a friend's home after it was destroyed by the Dec. 10 tornado in Dawson Springs, Ky. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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The devastating loss of life and property from tornadoes in Kentucky and eight other states in the South and Midwest on Friday led many homeowners to worry about what they would do if their home were hit by a tornado.

While safety is the first priority in any natural disaster, recovery often requires the help of a homeowner’s insurance policy.

We asked Jason Christiansen, co-founder of Young Alfred, an online insurance marketplace, which was just acquired by digital lending firm Credible, and Ted Olsen, managing director at Goosehead Insurance, an independent insurance agency, for advice on what homeowners need to know about their insurance coverage before a tornado hits and what to expect in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

Both responded via email, and their responses were edited for clarity. Their bottom line: Review your homeowner’s insurance coverage before a storm hits to make sure you have appropriate protection for risks in your area.

Does homeowner’s insurance pay for tornado damage? Does it make a difference if the damage is caused by wind or a fallen tree or a flood related to a tornado?

Olsen: Tornadoes are classified as a form of windstorm when they cause damage to homes and other property. The good news is that most homeowner’s insurance policies include windstorm coverage automatically and will cover tornado damage to your home or personal property inside the home.

The record-breaking tornadoes that swept the United States, by the numbers

Christiansen: Tornado damage is a covered peril in most standard home insurance policies. In insurance, the proximate cause is what matters, so if a tornado caused a tree to fall, the tornado is the covered peril. Most insurance policies also cover wind and fallen trees as well.

However, tornadoes are often classified as a type of wind damage in insurance. So if you have a wind exclusion, you might not have coverage from a tornado. Damage caused by flooding requires a separate policy. The exception is if a tornado destroys your roof and rain pools in your basement immediately afterward through the open roof. Since tornadoes are a covered peril, you would be covered in this instance as the tornado was the proximate cause.

There are a few areas in the country that are at high risk for wind damage, either from being located in a tornado-prone area or in one of the many coastal areas that are at risk for hurricanes. Insurance policies offered in these areas sometimes will exclude coverage for windstorm events, so you should ask your insurance agent if windstorm coverage is included on your policy.

Almost all home insurance policies do not cover flood damage. If you want coverage for flooding, you will need to purchase a separate flood insurance policy to cover the damage caused by rising water going into your home. These are offered both through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) and many private flood insurers. Ask your agent about the options available in your area and purchase a flood policy along with your home insurance policy to best protect your home.

Will homeowner’s insurance pay for debris removal after a tornado?

Christiansen: Most policies have coverage for debris removal if the debris was created by a covered loss (in this case, a tornado). Usually, there is a per-tree limit and per-incident limit for debris removal involving fallen trees. For example, $500 per tree and $1,000 per incident. There are policies that do not have debris removal, so definitely read your policy.

Will homeowner’s insurance pay for living expenses if a homeowner can’t live in their home?

Olsen: Yes, most home policies will include a separate line item of coverage called “Additional Living Expense” or “Loss of Use.” It will pay for the additional living expenses after a covered claim. The amount of coverage is typically 20 percent of the covered value of the home, but you can often purchase more when speaking to your agent.

Do I need special tornado insurance? If so, how does it work? How expensive is tornado insurance?

Olsen: Tornado damage is covered as long as you have windstorm coverage on your home policy. If you live in a high-risk area for a tornado or a hurricane, it’s not uncommon for a policy to have a separate higher deductible for any windstorm damage or to even exclude coverage altogether.

Ask your agent if you have a separate deductible for tornadoes (windstorm). It’s normally much higher than your regular deductible, but you do have the ability to adjust it up or down. Keep in mind that a lower windstorm deductible will result in a higher premium.

If windstorm coverage is excluded from your policy, you will need to purchase a separate windstorm policy to have coverage for a tornado. There are both private and government-run programs for windstorm policies in these high-risk locations. Discuss your options with your agent and make sure you purchase a windstorm policy if the coverage is excluded from your home insurance policy — it’s one of the most common and damaging losses and nobody should go without it.

What questions do home insurance companies ask after a tornado?

Christiansen: First, insurance companies will take down your policy information, personal contact details, the time of loss, what pieces of property are damaged and anything that needs to immediately be remediated to prevent future damage (e.g., tarping your roof). Then they will send out an insurance adjuster to review the damage on-site and adjust the claim.

Olsen: At a high level, they want to make sure you are safe and have a place to stay. After that, there will be an inventory of items lost to complete so you can begin to replace the things that were lost in the storm. This can be difficult to produce from memory, so we recommend that insureds maintain documentation with a smartphone video for each of the rooms of the residence and take note of what you have inside so you can easily provide a list of what was lost to your adjuster. Be prepared to document any additional expenses that you have because of the storm, as many may be covered by the home insurance.

What information do homeowners need to have when they call their insurance agent or company?

Christiansen: Besides your name, phone number and address, it’s helpful to have your policy number, the date when the damage occurred, what caused the damage and a list what is damaged or missing.

Olsen: In a major event such as a tornado, it can be difficult to find your policy number or know whom to contact at your carrier. Your first call should be to your agent, who should have a well-documented file for your household and can help direct you on how to file the insurance claim.

How Friday night’s rare and deadly December tornado outbreak unfolded

If you can’t find your agent’s contact, you can then call directly to the insurance carrier that is providing you coverage. Simply do an Internet search for the name of the company and the word “claims” and they should be able to locate your policy and help you file the claim with a few personal details.

Will my insurance rates go up after a major claim?

Christiansen: Many factors affect insurance rates, but it is not guaranteed your rate will increase. If you have no other claims and a tornado came through, this is likely priced in by the insurance company’s underwriting model. Where policyholders see large rate increases is when this is their second or third claim in a five-year period or if their insurance company was priced too low and is raising rates to try and return to profitability.

Olsen: Larger weather claims that affect many people are normally categorized as a “catastrophic loss.” These claims have very little effect on premiums. A tornado would be classified as one of these catastrophic losses, and you shouldn’t have to worry about any significant premium impact long-term.

Any other tips for homeowners who have been through a tornado?

Christiansen: Document as much as you can. The more pictures you take, the better. Also, when listing damaged or lost items, try to be as specific as possible.

Olsen: A tornado is devastating and can take quite a bit of time to recover from. It can be disheartening to have to live somewhere other than your home while you rebuild. Be sure to file the insurance claim right away to get the process moving quickly. Insurance providers typically will mobilize extra claims adjusters and resources to areas that have been hit by tornadoes or other catastrophic events to help the speed and quality of the experience. The sooner you file the claim, and the more responsive you are to the inquiries from the insurance provider, the faster you will be able to have everything back the way it was before.