Tuesday, November 16, 2010

High winds and storm damage -- what insurance covers and what it doesn't

As you probably know if you live in western Washington, high winds swept across much of that part of the state last night, toppling trees and knocking out power to thousands of people.

Every time this happens, our office gets calls from people wanting to know what damage their homeowners/auto/business insurance covers. (We're the Washington state agency that regulates insurance.)

Here are a few common questions:

Am I covered if my car was damaged by falling limbs? If your car was damaged, that damage should be covered under the comprehensive coverage in your auto insurance policy. (If you opted for comprehensive coverage, that is. Some people, to save money, just get liability coverage.)

My yard is covered with branches from the storm. None of them hit the house or my fence, so there's no property damage. But would the cleanup costs be covered in this case? Sorry, probably not. Standard homeowner's policies typically only pay for such cleanup if your property was actually damaged. In other words, your home, garage, fence, etc. would probably have to first be damaged by the debris for the insurer to pay to remove it. Standard policies don't cover the loss of trees or shrubs because of wind.

My business has an awning over the sidewalk, and it's been damaged by the wind. Is it covered? Probably, but check with your agent or insurer to be sure, since business insurance can vary a lot. Also, many business policies have business interruption coverage, which can be very useful if a covered loss forces you to close the business. But there are often deductibles or other limits, so they may not apply if the business interruption is for just a few days.

Click here for our page with tips and storm-related Q&As re: insurance.

If you have damage and have questions or problems with your insurer (and live in Washington state), call our consumer affairs hotline at 1-800-562-6900. It's not a phone tree; it's staffed by live people.

Look for some more wind gusts tomorrow. Weather Underground is predicting a south wind 15-25 mph in Seattle and Olympia, and a lighter 10-15 mph in Tacoma.

If you've lost power, here are Puget Sound Energy's updates on progress restoring power, including a handy map of outages and progress.

And if you want the state version of a worst-case scenario survival guide, here's the link (it's a 5-meg pdf, sorry about that) to the Emergency Management Department's "Emergency Resources Guide." It tells you what to do in case of a pandemic, a terrorist bomb, biological weapons attack, or if you're trapped in debris (tap on a pipe). It's got questions to ask someone making a bomb threat, and what to avoid eating after a radioactive "dirty bomb" goes off, etc. etc. etc.

From our case files...

A sampling of recent cases our consumer advocacy staff has handled in the past few days (We get many consumer calls a day; these are very typical of the sorts of cases we deal with):
  • A driver got into an accident with a business' truck in Seattle. The truck backed into his car. Yet the business' insurer initially offered to pay for only 70 percent of the nearly $2,400 in damage. The man complained to us. We contacted the insurer, which reviewed the case -- including photos provided by the car's owner -- and agreed to pay for all the damage.
  • A Vancouver woman whose insurer wanted to cancel her policy due to a deteriorating roof asked for our help. We helped her get the company to renew the policy and keep her covered.
  • An Issaquah man wanted to remove his daughter, who is a college student in another country, from his auto policy. The company refused. We asked them to review the decision. He got a $563 discount as a result.
If you live in Washington and need help with an insurance company, agent or broker, give us a call at 1-800-562-6900 or e-mail AskMike@oic.wa.gov. We won't send you to a phone tree try to sell you anything -- we're the state government agency that regulates the insurance industry in Washington state. We'll do our best to help.