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How to Deal with Natural Disasters

June 13, 2024 7 min

We often see news reports about earthquakes and other natural disasters. It may seem that these are events that happen to other people. But in the US, dozens of major disasters happen each year, causing millions to leave their homes.

A disaster can happen to anyone, whether it’s a wildfire, hurricane or tornado. Having a plan will help you make better judgments. Keep reading to learn how to keep your head on straight while dealing with a disaster.

Focus on your most urgent issues

In a disaster, you might not know how to move forward. Don’t pressure yourself to handle everything at once. Instead, tackle the top priorities first.

The most important things to consider are health and physical safety. If you or your loved ones were physically hurt during the disaster, make sure to visit a doctor as soon as possible.

And don’t overlook your mental health. Are you feeling sad, unfocused or numb? Do you find yourself getting into arguments or losing sleep? If so, contact the American Red Cross, which offers free 24/7 counseling and support. Call their Disaster Distress Helpline at 800.985.5990.

It’s also important to protect your property against immediate dangers. If a disaster damages your home, think about which damage needs to be fixed first. If an earthquake or hurricane caused a gas leak or you suspect one, for example, you’ll want to get it repaired immediately. (Make sure to shut off gas during these disasters.) If your roof has a hole in it, get it fixed soon to avoid further damage.

Once you’ve attended to your health and any immediate dangers at your home, you can move onto other issues like filing insurance claims and making lower-priority repairs.

Tips & Facts

Good to Know

A disaster can happen to anyone, whether a wildfire, hurricane or tornado. Having a plan will help you make better judgments.

Protect your finances

It may sound strange to focus on your finances after a disaster. But you’ll want to safeguard your money just as you would any physical property.

Take these steps to protect yourself financially after a natural disaster:

  • Keep your checkbooks, credit cards and debit cards in a safe place. After a disaster, contractors and other strangers might be wandering through your home. Keep these items in a locked safe to prevent anyone from accessing your financial information (and store the key to your safe elsewhere).
  • Secure paperwork or belongings that list your social security, birthday, and other personal information. If someone gets their hands on this data, they could use it to steal your identity and open new credit cards or loans in your name.
  • File a credit freeze if you’re worried that your personal information was lost or stolen during a disaster. You can set up a credit freeze through each of the three major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. These bureaus don’t communicate with each other, so you’ll need to set up a freeze with each one individually.
  • If you’re unable to access your accounts, call your bank(s) to get a replacement debit card, credit card or checkbook. Also, keep a watchful eye on your accounts to make sure there’s no unusual activity. If your bank was affected by the disaster too, there might be glitches in its own records. So if you spot anything strange, call your bank right away to let them know.
  • Moving forward, monitor your credit rating. You can get a free credit report through all three credit bureaus at least once a year through

Deal with property damage

If your home was physically damaged or destroyed during the disaster, take these steps to make things right.

  1. Document the damage. Take photos of the damage, ideally with your mobile phone, which will track the date and time. Take clear, detailed shots. Then step back and take some wide-angle shots too. Your photos will become helpful evidence for your insurance company.
  2. Contact your insurance company for instructions on filing a claim. Your homeowners insurance may help cover damage to your home as well as to belongings inside your home. If you’re a renter, your renters insurance should cover personal items inside your unit. Your auto insurance policy may pay for damage to your car, depending on the policy. If you file a claim, keep in mind that you may have to pay a deductible.
  3. Gather estimates for home repairs. This can help you figure out how much money you’ll need to request from your insurance company. Your insurer may also send an inspector to your home to see the damage.
  4. File your claim as soon as possible. Filing an insurance claim and receiving the money can take a while. Also, if the natural disaster affected lots of people in your community, then insurance companies may get backed up trying to deal with all of the claims.
  5. If you must vacate your home, tell your insurance agent. If your home is severely damaged, you might need to live somewhere else while it’s being repaired. Your homeowners or renter’s policy may help pay for a hotel or other temporary lodging.
  6. For extra housing assistance, ask FEMA for help. If your homeowners or renter’s policy doesn’t pay for temporary housing — or pays for only some of it — contact FEMA. You may be eligible for financial help if the President has declared the disaster a major disaster. (You can check the status of your community’s disaster here.)
  7. Contact your state emergency management agencies for help if needed.
Tips & Facts

Good to Know

Patelco has a great resource page to help you find local help with things like food, medical care, and utilities.

Know your rights

During a disaster, you might face medical bills or other unexpected expenses. If a disaster affects your finances, rest assured that you’re not alone. Support is available and you have the right to ask for help with bills, fees, paperwork and more.

If you’re struggling financially after a disaster, start by getting organized. Make a list of your necessary bills and expenses including:

  • mortgage or rent
  • debt payments like student loans
  • insurance
  • cell phone
  • utilities

Then contact your providers and explain your situation. Many companies have policies in place to help people just like you, who have experienced a natural disaster or catastrophe.

Challenge: You’re struggling to pay your mortgage or rent.

Contact your mortgage lender or landlord right away to let them know.

You have the right to ask for help with your home loan. Ask your mortgage company which hardship options are available. They might offer a forbearance plan, which allows you to make smaller payments or even skip some payments. (You’ll still need to pay them later on, of course.)

If you’re having trouble making rent payments, your landlord might be willing to waive any late fees. And if your home is damaged, you have a right to ask for a rent discount.

Challenge: Your home was destroyed and you need financial help to rebuild.

If your home was damaged beyond repair, the FHA can help you get a mortgage to rebuild or buy a new home — without making a down payment.

Challenge: You’re having trouble paying your student loan.

Federal student loans have special natural disaster forbearance programs that you can apply for if you were affected by a federally declared disaster. A forbearance program allows you to stop making payments for a period of time. (Keep in mind that interest will continue to accrue.)

Challenge: You can’t afford to pay your energy company or Internet provider.

Utility companies may be willing to work with you, so give your provider a call.

Challenge: You’re worried that you might fall behind on your credit card bills.

Contact your credit card company. A customer service agent may be able to offer you flexibility until you get back on your feet.

Challenge: You need to connect with an affordable mental health provider.

One good way to reach social services is 211, which can connect you with local agencies that can help. And don’t be afraid to reach out to local nonprofits. Many are designed to help people dealing with a disaster.

You may have to swallow your pride to call these companies and ask them for help. But keep in mind that many are willing to help. They won’t just call and volunteer their support, though, so you have to be brave and reach out to them.

Keep in mind that your employer may also have resources that you can tap into. Talk to your HR department and see what they can offer.


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