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Navigating insurance claims, post Hurricane Irma

  • Irma could be a "top 5 most costly hurricane," according to JPMorgan.

  • Consumers should keep detailed records when communicating with their insurer after a natural disaster.

Consumers affected by Irma aren't in for an easy financial recovery.

Insured losses from Irma range widely. Insurance analyst Randy Binner told CNBC Monday that the figure could be as low as $10 billion; JPMorgan warned its clients that the storm could still be "a top 5 most costly hurricane" at the lower end of a pre-landfall $15 billion to $50 billion estimate.

To be sure, Florida residents have more pressing concerns than insurance. As Irma (now a tropical storm) moves toward Georgia and Alabama, areas of Florida are still under storm surge and tropical storm warnings. Mandatory evacuations have displaced more than 6.5 million people in South Florida, and more than 6 million customers — or about 60 percent of the state—were without power Monday.

When you're ready, here's how to start navigating the claims process:

Alert insurers

Depending on where you live, insurance adjusters may not be able to get in right away, said Loretta Worters, a vice president for the Insurance Information Institute. Flooding and downed power lines may make it unsafe to access the property, she said, and companies may also need to wait for officials to lift mandatory evacuation orders.

But it helps to pre-emptively reach out and let your agents know your home and vehicle have sustained storm damage, she said. That helps insurers know both where to go to look for damage, and where to find you in the coming days and weeks to more quickly provide assistance.

Another reason to act fast: Insurers often handle claims on a first-come, first-serve basis, J. Robert Hunter, director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America, told CNBC earlier this year.

Consumers likely need to make several calls. (Ideally, policy numbers and agent contacts would have been part of an emergency "go bag.")

Homeowners: You may have several kinds of coverage. In addition to a primary homeowners insurance policy, some homeowners may also have separate wind damage coverage via the state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corporation, and flood insurance with the National Flood Insurance Program or a private insurer, Worters said.

Even if you don't have flood insurance (only about 12 percent of homeowners nationwide do), call your home insurer, said Peter Kochenburger, deputy director of the Insurance Law Center at the University of Connecticut School of Law. Homeowners policies specifically exclude damage related to flooding, but water and wind damage are separate issues. (For example, you could be covered for water damage resulting from wind damage to the roof, or a flying tree branch that broke a window, he said.)

"Don't assume you don't have coverage," he said.

Auto: The comprehensive portion of your auto insurance typically would cover damage from downed trees, flooding and other storm-related damage, up to the vehicle's market value, Worters said.

Travel: Floridians currently traveling should reach out to their travel insurance provider, if they bought a policy for their trip. The "trip interruption" portion could kick in for policyholders who need to cut short their travels due to the hurricane damaging property, said Megan Singh, project management director for insurance marketplace Squaremouth.

"They could actually be covered to return home," she said — including the cost of a new flight and reimbursement for hotel nights and other prepaid expenses left unused as a result of the shortened trip. Call your insurer to confirm the policy details.

Keep good records

Take notes documenting every contact with your insurer, including who you spoke with, when, and what was said. Those details can be important if you later have any difficulty with your claim, or need to file a complaint.

"You want to be able to document what you asked, and what the answers are," Kochenburger said.

Keep your claim numbers at hand for easy reference. That helps insurers route you quickly to the claims department, which will have the most up-to-date info on your claim, Hunter said.

Save receipts

Your homeowners policy may include "additional living expense" coverage that provides reimbursement for immediate expenses like emergency repairs, temporary housing and meals, Kochenburger said. Ask your agent about that coverage. Insurers often reimburse those expenses quickly.

Explore alternatives

Consumers who don't have insurance or are underinsured aren't without recourse, Worters said.

Check (run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency) to see if you qualify for grants or low-interest loans to help cover expenses such as temporary housing, emergency home repairs and property losses, she said. Nonprofits are also collecting donations to provide aid and supplies to people in need.

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