Car After a Natural Disaster

The night Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast, Mandee Bellarosa and her roommates were hunkered down in their multilevel condominium in Hoboken, New Jersey. At 9 pm, the power went out, and shortly afterward they went to bed.

Bellarosa woke just two hours later when a friend called with bad news. Water was already entering his garage, where she had earlier parked her 2009 Volkswagen Jetta, hoping to keep it out of harm’s way. Despite the blackout, she could see that the streets below her windows were fast becoming rivers.

It wasn’t until the following afternoon that the water had receded enough for Bellarosa to venture outside, and even then it was a knee-deep trudge to check on the status of her car. The Jetta actually looked OK, but when she opened the driver’s door, water poured out.

Car shopping would probably be the last thing on your mind if you were caught in a natural disaster. But events like the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan or this year’s so-called Frankenstorm can destroy tens of thousands of cars in little more than the blink of an eye, leaving their owners no choice but to pick a replacement vehicle as they start to rebuild their lives.

Even a lesser calamity — a toppled oak or a deer leaping from a dark wood — can unexpectedly leave someone without wheels, while life continues forward at full speed.

In these situations, the last thing you want is any more stress or drama. With that in mind, here are a few basic strategies — from filing car insurance claims to car shopping — to get you back on the road as swiftly and painlessly as possible.

Determining if Your Car Insurance Covers Natural Disasters
You’ll want to establish what’s covered by your car insurance policy before making any big decisions. “If your car was damaged in [a storm like] Sandy, it is likely covered if you have comprehensive coverage as part of your auto insurance policy,” says J. Robert Hunter, director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America. Comprehensive coverage — which is sometimes known as “other than collision” insurance — “covers many things that could happen in a storm, including water or flood damage, falling objects including trees, signs and such, and wind damage,” he says.

People with newer cars usually have this coverage. But Hunter also advises those with older cars, who may be thinking of dropping collision from their policies, to “keep the usually much less costly comprehensive coverage.” It can be especially important if they live in areas prone to floods, high winds, earthquakes or other calamities.

“File your claim fast, as they are usually settled on a first-come, first-served basis,” he advises. This is critically important after a widespread disaster like Sandy, since insurers can quickly become overwhelmed with claims. Bellarosa, for instance, has gone weeks without a final settlement for her totaled Jetta despite almost daily calls to her adjuster.