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.
And if you don't have comprehensive coverage, check your homeowner's or renter's policy. In some cases, it may cover disaster-related damage to your car.
Depending on the scale of the natural disaster, you may also be eligible for assistance, typically in the form of a loan, from one of a number of state and federal agencies. Check DisasterAssistance.gov to see what help is available to replace your car.
Document Your Case
As soon as it's safe to do so, grab your camera or cell phone and snap some photos of the damage. Make sure to get shots from various angles — front, back, side, above and below — as well as pictures from inside the car, including the trunk and engine bay. Resist the urge to start cleaning up the mess immediately; it's best to get photos of the car as you found it. Clear evidence like this can help your insurance company understand the nature and extent of the damage — and whether it makes sense to attempt a repair.
Diana Dyckes, another Sandy victim from Hoboken, returned to her 2011 Subaru Legacy the day after the storm. Inside she found small ponds of floodwater in the cupholders and residue on the seats and roof lining. She snapped photos of what, to some, might appear to be light damage. But these signs of exposure to brackish water demonstrated to her insurer that the car was a total loss. Her later discovery of a flooded trunk and a failed ignition bore that out.
A car is typically declared a total loss if the anticipated costs of repairing it exceed approximately 70 percent of its estimated replacement value. Make sure your car is given its proper due in this equation by using an online appraisal tool like Edmunds.com's True Market Value (TMV)®. The tool allows you to create your own estimate, which you can then compare to the amount determined by your insurer.
Remember that your car's specific odometer reading as well as its trim, options and condition all affect its value, so make sure that any estimates have accounted for these details correctly. If you happen to have any clear "before" photos of the car, maybe from that Sunday afternoon you spent washing and waxing it, these can help you verify the car's actual condition prior to the incident.
Stand Your Ground — and Escalate if Necessary
By following these steps, you may be pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to reach a comfortable settlement with your insurer. But that's not always the case, of course.
Hunter, a veteran of the insurance industry, recommends keeping a record of all interactions you have with your insurer after making a claim, including the date and time, the person you spoke with and what he or she told you. Having a detailed record of these conversations can come in handy if there are any issues with settling your claim.
Know that you aren't required to accept the first settlement offer you get, says Hunter. Ask the adjuster to be specific about how he or she determined the settlement amount. If it doesn't seem fair, make your case using the evidence you've gathered in the steps outlined above.
"If you still have trouble," says Hunter, "complain." And don't just ask for your adjuster's immediate supervisor. Talk instead to the claims office manager, who will likely be more motivated to wrap things up both quickly and to your satisfaction. If that doesn't work, push it a step further by seeking out the vice president or director of claims at the insurer's home office.
You can also file a complaint with the insurance commissioner's office in your home state. Most offices have online forms you can use to file the complaint along with your supporting documentation. Keep in mind, though, that resolution via this path usually takes longer than working directly with your insurer. The paperwork involved with settling complaints made to commissioners' offices is burdensome to insurers, so simply threatening to file one may by itself motivate your insurer to act in your favor.
If all else fails, your last resort is to contact an attorney. Insurance companies take legal action quite seriously, in part because of the public relations problems they have the potential to bring.
Ready, Set, Whoa
Let's say you're happy with your settlement and you've got a check in hand. All that's left now is to hit the dealership and buy your new car, right? Not so fast. Tempting as that may be, it's important to take your time and do the proper research beforehand, just as you would with a purchase under normal circumstances.
In fact, taking your time may be even more critical in the wake of a disaster. Edmunds.com analysts estimated that in the immediate aftermath of Sandy, the price of a used car in affected areas jumped as much as $1,000, due to damaged dealer stock as well as interruptions in the supply chain.
If you're in desperate need of a set of wheels, try borrowing a car from a friend, joining a carpool at work or signing up for a car-sharing plan like Zipcar. Or consider renting a car for a week or so while you navigate the purchase process. This expense can pay for itself and then some, since it buys you time to evaluate your options thoroughly and find the best possible deal.
Once you finally have a moment to think, check out our Car Buying Guide for top picks of new cars in every type and price range. Try the strategies outlined in our "Quick Guide to Buying a New Car" to streamline your purchase. If you know what you want, you can buy a new car in a day.
Also, in the aftermath of any widespread destruction, be wary of unscrupulous sellers who may be trying to unload flood-damaged cars. Telltale signs include stained carpets or upholstery, electrical glitches or musky odors. As always, if the deal seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Car Incentives to the Rescue?
Be aware that some manufacturers and dealers may be offering incentives specifically for disaster victims. Bellarosa, for instance, found an excellent deal while shopping to replace the Jetta she lost in Hurricane Sandy. She loved her old car but couldn't pass up the employee pricing and discounted financing that Nissan has offered to those within federally designated disaster and emergency areas. She now drives a brand-new Nissan Altima.
Other manufacturers offered similar deals, as well as relief plans for owners having trouble keeping up with their car payments in the weeks after the storm. Meanwhile, some dealerships in the area were advertising "hurricane pricing" as well as perks like on-site insurance adjusters or a free generator with every new car purchase.
Remember to research the details of a disaster-related incentive just as you would any other, using tools like Edmunds.com's car Incentives & Rebates page. It's important to stay informed. Bellarosa, for example, shopped carefully and left one dealership after being "steps away" from purchasing a car.
"The salesman was less than forthcoming about the deals that were available to me regarding Sandy when he knew from the beginning that was why I was in the market for a new car," she says.
Both Bellarosa and Dyckes, who lost her Subaru to the storm surge, are moving on with their lives now. But they are not likely to forget Hurricane Sandy any time soon. Bellarosa is finally behind the wheel of a new car, but she still hasn't received an insurance check for the old one. Most recently, she found that a strongly worded e-mail to her adjuster garnered an apologetic reply — but still no specific details on her settlement.
Dyckes, on the other hand, received a swift settlement from her insurance company, the highly rated USAA. However, she has decided to forego replacing her car for now. "I take a ferry to work," she says of her daily trips into Manhattan. And on days off, whenever she's needed to get somewhere, she's been able to rely on public transportation or simply her own two feet.
In the future she may consider a car-sharing program where, when you've finished using the car, you can simply return it and walk away.
Coincidentally, her hometown of Hoboken offers just such a plan, called Corner Cars, in partnership with Hertz. Unfortunately, a number of their cars were also damaged in the storm.
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.