A typical hurricane season in the U.S. — June to November — will see 12 named storms, including six hurricanes and three major hurricanes (category 3 or higher), according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
If you’re in a hurricane-prone area, that’s a lot of storms to be worried about, and a lot of time to spend worrying about them. Even more worrisome? The 2017 hurricane season was one of the worst on record, with six major hurricanes, including two category 5 storms.
But thankfully, you’ve protected yourself with renters insurance. Or have you? Batten down the hatches, because your renters policy covers less than you may think (or hope).
Read on to find out:
There are three parts to your renters insurance coverage:
Personal property: Covers damage to furniture, clothes, and anything else you own that is usually in your apartment.
Personal liability and medical expenses: Pays legal expenses and medical expenses if a guest gets hurt at your home.
Loss of use/additional living expenses: Pays some additional costs if you need to leave your during repairs due to a covered event.
Personal property and loss of use are both applicable during a hurricane. (Personal liability coverage is there when a guest gets hurt at your home.) In order for your personal property coverage to kick in, it has to be damaged or ruined by a listed peril on your policy.
Hurricanes can do a lot of damage in a lot of ways: some of it covered, and some isn’t.
Hurricane-related perils that your insurance may cover include windstorms and hail (though check your policy — some renters insurance policies in coastal areas explicitly exclude wind and hail damage). Damage from fire and lightning is also covered.
Explicitly not covered by any renters insurance policy: water damage from flooding or storm-surge.
After a hurricane, you may think that damaged goods are damaged goods, but your insurance company disagrees; before cutting a check, they will want to ensure that the damage came from an actual covered peril.
During hurricanes this can be tricky — there’s a lot of wind and water, so who knows what ruined your couch? But for your insurance company, the nitpickiness is necessary: if a storm surge or saturated soil and heavy rains led to your home flooding and soaking your couch, it won’t be covered by your renters insurance, which explicitly excludes flood damage. But if the wind blew your roof off and your couch got soaked by rain, your renters insurance would cover it, because that’s damage directly related to a windstorm — a covered peril.
The result either way is a soaked couch, but one soaked couch is covered by renters insurance and one isn’t.
If you’re in a flood zone, it’s really important that you buy a flood insurance policy to protect yourself from flooding damage during a storm. You can buy a policy that just covers the contents of your house, and then if your couch does get ruined during a storm, you can rest assured that it’ll be covered other way.
Read more about flood insurance for renters.
If your apartment is uninhabitable after a hurricane, you may be able to receive additional living expense reimbursements, depending on whether the damage that rendered the apartment uninhabitable is covered by your renters insurance policy.
The general rule is that if your home is uninhabitable due to a covered peril (like a fire), then your insurance will cover additional living expenses. But if your home is uninhabitable because of a non-covered peril (like a flood), then your insurance company won’t pay additional living expenses.
Anecdotally, many insurance companies treat loss of use/additional living expenses reimbursements on a case-by-case basis, so it may be worth inquiring or even making a claim if any damage from a hurricane forces you out of your home.
Sometimes hurricanes provoke mandatory evacuations — will your renters insurance pay for your evacuation expenses? This one also varies by policy and even event, but the general answer is no.
Some policies include prohibited use coverage, which pays loss of use/additional living expenses if a civil authority prohibits use of your home “due to damage to neighbor homes by a covered threat.”
A common example would be if a wildfire damaged your neighborhood and city officials prohibited you from entering your home. Since fire is a covered peril, then additional living expenses would be covered. But if your neighborhood flooded after a hurricane and officials didn’t let you in, that would likely not be a covered under prohibited use, since flood damage isn’t covered by renters insurance. (And, more bad news, flood insurance doesn’t offer loss of use/additional living expenses, so you won’t be covered by your flood policy, either.)
Since evacuations often happen before any damage has occurred, it’s not clear that the language of prohibited use applies — we’ve heard loss of use/additional living expenses claims being denied after an evacuation, but we’ve also heard of them being approved, especially if filed alongside damage claims. So this one is tricky! It’s a case by case basis, and not something you can count on.
But additional living expenses are definitely something you should try to claim if you are evacuated or prohibited from re-entering your home after a storm — it can’t hurt, and your claim may get approved.
One result of many hurricanes is that the power goes out. A loss of power on its own isn’t enough to claim loss of use on your home (even though you think it’s totally impossible to be in your apartment in the summer when the A/C isn’t working, your insurer will argue that the apartment is still usable).
But one thing your renters insurance can help you with is replacing any food that is spoiled in your fridge while the power is off: spoiled food from power outages is specifically covered in many policies. Take photos of all your food before you throw it out and talk to your insurer about submitting a claim.
If the president of the U.S. declares a state of emergency following a hurricane, he makes FEMA funds available to victims of the storm. As a renter, you may be eligible for disaster grants or loans from FEMA.
If you have renters insurance, you'll be required to file claims with your insurance company first, and then if you have additional expenses on top of what your insurance company paid out, FEMA may give you additional funds. People without renters insurance may be eligible for funds right away. It sounds good now, but FEMA assistance is not a replacement for renters insurance — there are too many things that have to happen in order for the funds to be available. But if a state of emergency is declared after the storm in your area and you have evacuation expenses or damage to your stuff from the storm, you should register with FEMA.
With so many unknowns, it can be frustrating and frightening to be a renter in an area that is prone to hurricanes. But with the right combination of insurance products — that means renters insurance and flood insurance — you can protect yourself from most hurricane-related damage and expenses.
There are also practical tips that can reduce your risk and go a long way in saving your stuff during a storm — and help you file a claim after:
If you keep property in a basement, move it to higher ground if a storm is coming.
If you have patio or porch furniture, bring it inside.
Before the storm, ensure that your home inventory is up to date so that you can easily file a claim in case of property damage.
If you don’t have flood insurance and are worried about rising waters, it may be worth moving furniture or personal items to a higher floor.
Keep an emergency fund (or at the very least, a credit card) that you can use if you need to get out dodge fast.
If you evacuate, keep all of your receipts — for food, gas, hotels — in case you decide to file a loss of use claim later.
And remember: the most important things you can do are to pay attention to the news, take care of yourself and your family, and evacuate if needed.
Logan Sachon is the co-founder of The Billfold, a groundbreaking personal finance site for millennials that was named one of Time's 25 Best Blogs of 2012. Her work has been published in New York Magazine, Glamour, The Guardian, BuzzFeed and more.