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Lessons learned from Superstorm Sandy

Details from an exclusive Consumer Reports survey will help you be prepared when a natural disaster strikes

Published: April 2013
Brick Township, New Jersey
Signs of the devastation remained months after Hurricane Sandy,

Six months after Sandy

With six months elapsed since Superstorm Sandy socked the mid-Atlantic and predictions pointing to a very active Atlantic hurricane season this year, Consumer Reports has taken stock of the superstorm’s impact and distilled its lessons.

In one of the largest such surveys on a natural disaster, the Consumer Reports National Research Center in March 2013 asked ConsumerReports.org subscribers in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York—three of the states hardest hit by Sandy—about their problems and actions during the days following the storm’s October 29, 2012, landfall in the New York metropolitan area. (View the map of where survey respondents live.)

Nearly 8,400 people responded, and their experiences document the deep disruption and in some cases devastation caused by the storm. Their responses also revealed the steps you can take to soften the blow of a major weather event.

A few highlights of our findings:

The loss of power plunged whole communities into darkness and caused a host of major and minor inconveniences:

  • Loss of TV and Internet service (73 percent), heat (65 percent), and home phone service (58 percent).
  • Lack of hot water (42 percent), hot food (30 percent), and running water (17 percent).

Forty-four percent of survey respondents reported minor damage, including broken fences and downed electrical wires on their property, for example. Ten percent suffered major damage. Flooding was the most frequently cited problem, followed by damage to roofs, windows, and doors, possibly by wind, falling trees, debris, and so on.

In some cases, damage was so severe that residents couldn't remain in their homes. Eleven percent of all respondents said their homes were uninhabitable for three or more days, and 4 percent were still not able to live at home several months after the storm, when we conducted our survey.  

Armed with these lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy, in this special report we offer advice to help you prepare for the worst, steer clear of avoidable problems, and cope with the aftermath of a storm or other disaster. Among our pointers:

  • Consider getting a generator if power outages are frequent where you live. Opt for a stationary model rather than a portable generator for maximum effectiveness.
  • Keep a corded phone around for landline service, and consider having cell service with a few cellular carriers.
  • Strongly consider getting flood insurance—almost one-third of those with flood damage lacked it.

We hope you don't have to deal with a devastating event such as Sandy, but you can help yourself be prepared with all the advice on the following pages. (Navigate to our sections about about generators and home repairs; phone, Internet, and TV service; insurance and personal finance; driving safety and smart buying; and food safety by clicking on the links at the top or bottom of this page.)

Time is of the essence—the six-month Atlantic hurricane starts on June 1.

The map here show the areas where respondents to our survey live. (Return to the top of the article.)

The map here show the percentage of residents who lost power from their utility company for at least one day. (Return to the top of the article.)

The map here show the percentages of county residents who had significant property damage. (Return to the top of the article.)

Share your storm stories

Tell us and other readers about your experiences during Superstorm Sandy and share your advice on dealing with a natural disaster by joining this discussion in our forums.


Generators and Home Repairs

Loss of power was one of the most widespread problems, with far-reaching effects on those left in the dark. Riding out Sandy and its aftermath was definitely better for people who had generators than for those who didn't. And homeowners with stationary generators fared better than those with portable models, in part because they did not have to depend on buying gasoline at a time when it was in short supply. (Stationary generators run on natural gas or propane.)

One-third of the non-apartment dwellers we contacted had a generator at some point during the storm, although 22 percent of those were purchased after Sandy made landfall. One-fifth had a need to use them during Sandy. Of those who owned generators, most had portable models—only 12 percent owned stationary generators. Owners of portable models also had more problems. More than 20 percent ran out of fuel, 10 percent weren't able to power what they needed, and 9 percent had trouble starting the machine. Half of those who owned portable generators experienced more than one problem, and almost one-third said the machines were too noisy.

Almost 90 percent of the owners of stationary generators were highly satisfied with their performance. Whether a homeowner owned a portable or a stationary generator also colored what respondents said were the greatest hardships they suffered during the storm. For those without a generator, lack of heat, lights, and a working refrigerator were the top complaints. Owners of portable generators said that lack of heat, gasoline for their cars, and lights, and roads that were inaccessible were their chief inconveniences. And those lucky enough to have a stationary generator had creature comforts at home but complained most frequently about inaccessible roads and lack of Internet service and gasoline.

A small percentage of those who used portable generators complained about fumes coming inside the home. But when we asked respondents where they had placed their generators, 6 percent who used them said they ran it in the garage, something you should never do. A handful of respondents ran a generator inside the home, which is also very dangerous. Because gasoline generators emit carbon monoxide, they should never be use in an enclosed space or too near your house. CO poisoning can be fatal.

Massapequa Park, New York
An electrical transformer, power lines, and a tree rest in a yard.

What you can do

The beauty of having a stationary or standby generator is that it switches on automatically when the power goes off. In Consumer Reports' tests of generators, we recommend two stationary models, the Kohler 8.5 RES-QS7, $3,200, and the Generac CorePower 5837, $1,800, which we named a CR Best Buy. The Kohler delivered smooth, steady power and offers 7,000 watts with natural gas and 8,500 watts using propane. The Generac performed capably for roughly half the cost of the Kohler. It offers 6,000 watts using natural gas and 7,000 watts using propane.

The moderately priced portable and stationary generators we tested deliver 5,000 to 7,000 watts, enough for most needs. A generator of that size can power the following:

  • Refrigerator (600 watts)
  • Microwave (1,500 watts)
  • One or two sump pumps (600 watts each)
  • Several lights (400 to 800 watts)
  • TV (200 watts)
  • Portable heater (1,300 watts)
  • Heating system (500 watts)

But if you need enough power to run a central air conditioner (5,000 watts), water heater (3,000 watts), or such large appliances as a range (5,000 watts), washing machine (1,300 watts) or dryer (5,000 watts), consider a 10,000- to 15,000-watt generator. Be aware: Not all generators deliver what they promise, something we discovered in our generator tests.

Stationary generators are hooked into your home's electrical system. We recommend installing a transfer switch (about $500 to $900) even if you have a portable generator. A transfer switch connects a generator directly to your electrical panel and is the best and safest way to use one. You avoid the hassle and risks of running extension cords between the generator and the items you're powering.

Generators and gasoline

In our experience, most gasoline-powered generators use 8 to 22 gallons a day. That means you'll need several days' worth of fuel on hand. Store gasoline only in approved metal or plastic storage containers. And fill the generator and the extra containers before the storm. Finally, remember that it's almost impossible to siphon gas out of most modern vehicles, so don't count on your car as a fuel source for your generator.


Home repairs: Working with contractors

Natural disasters bring out the best in people as they pitch in to help friends and neighbors. Unfortunately, it also brings out the worst in the form of scammers who take advantage of vulnerable storm victims. That was the case with Sandy. Price gouging was reported by 36 percent of all respondents to our Hurricane Sandy Impact Survey. The price of gas was most commonly cited. Of the one-fifth of respondents who hired contractors to help with post-Sandy repairs, 22 percent felt they had been exploited. The most common complaint was excessive prices charged for the repairs, followed by contractors who rushed through the job and did substandard work.

What you can do

Too often unscrupulous contractors try to take advantage of homeowners in the chaos following a natural disaster, when many homes are in need of repair. Here are some red flags to help you spot contractors who may not have your best interests at heart.

  • A contractor who makes unsolicited phone calls or visits. Be especially wary of people who offer a bargain price, claiming that they're doing a job in the neighborhood and have leftover materials.
  • A contractor whose address can't be verified, who uses only a post office box, or who has only an answering service and no listing in the telephone book.
  • A contractor who isn't affiliated with any recognized trade association.
  • License or insurance information you can't verify.
  • A contractor who can't (or won't) provide references for similar jobs in your area.
  • The promise of a hefty discount—but no mention of the total cost of the job.
  • The promise of a deep discount if the contractor uses your home as a "demo."
  • High-pressure sales tactics or threats to rescind a special price if you don't sign on the spot.
  • A contractor who tries to scare you into signing a contract by claiming that your house puts you at peril, saying, for example, "Your electrical wiring could start a fire if it isn't replaced."

How to find a reputable contractor

Even if your home needs urgent repairs, take time to find a reputable contractor and demand a written contract. It may delay your project a bit, but you'll avoid the scams that typically follow such disasters. Here's what to consider:

Don't chase the low ball. A low bid may be attractive, but at a certain point the contractor will try to make up the difference in other ways, for example, by cutting corners during the project. Get at least three estimates to gauge the going rate for your project.

Check references. Reputable contractors should be happy to provide names and the contact information of satisfied customers. Then check the work to see how it's holding up. In past Consumer Reports surveys, we've found that people who hired contractors they had worked with before were happier and had fewer time and cost overruns than those who hired someone new. Word-of-mouth references are the next best thing. And always check the Better Business Bureau for filed complaints before making your decision.

Review the paperwork. That includes up-to-date license and insurance and workers compensation policies. (The Contractor's License Reference Site has information on licensing requirements in your state, as well as a list of licensed contractors.) The contractor, not you, should get permits and should give you a lien waiver when the job is done. The latter will keep suppliers from knocking on your door for unpaid bills.

Insist on a written contract. This should specify what will be done to complete the job, associated costs, and the payment schedule. Don't sign a contract with a lot of open-ended amounts for products and materials (called "allowances" in contractor speak). Once the work is underway, try to stick to the original terms of the contract, since making changes is a sure way to blow your budget.

Pay by check. Write out the check to the contracting company rather than to an individual. A reasonable down payment is 30 percent of the total project cost to be paid upon initial delivery of materials. Make final payments only when the work is completed to your satisfaction. A reputable contractor will not threaten you or pressure you to sign documents if the job is not finished properly.

Share your storm stories

Tell us and other readers about your experiences during Superstorm Sandy and share your advice on dealing with a natural disaster by joining this discussion in our forums.


Phone, Internet, and TV Service

You want to check on family and friends, get news reports, and find entertainment to help you while away day after day cooped up indoors. During Sandy, many homeowners were cut off by widespread disruption to phone service and even more to Internet access and TV service.

Here's what happened to our survey respondents and advice on what you can do to cope.

Home phone

You might think that your home phone would be more likely to work during a disaster than a cell phone, but that wasn't the case during Superstorm Sandy. More than half (58 percent) of all survey participants couldn't use their landlines for at least one full day, and the median time without service was seven days. By contrast, only one-third (33 percent) of respondents had no cell-phone service for at least a day, with a median outage of four days. (More on cell phones later.)

A power outage increased the likelihood of losing landline service, not surprising since so many phones and phone lines now require power in order to work. Almost three-quarters (73 percent) of those who lost power couldn't use their home phones for a day or more. But even some of those who never saw the lights go out—9 percent—had no home-phone service for at least a day.

The type of home-phone service affected the experiences of households that lost power. In the metro New York area as a whole, where about half the respondents had landline service from cable companies (49 percent) and the other half from phone companies (47 percent), the phone-company customers fared better. Two-thirds (65 percent) of phone-company accounts lost service for at least one day, with a median outage of four days. That compares to 83 percent of cable-phone users who lost power, for whom the outage lasted a median of seven days. From another angle, our data show that phone company subscribers were twice as likely to have maintained their landline service (35 percent did) if they lost power than cable company phone subscribers (17 percent did).  

The one-third of phone-company customers who kept service probably have old-fashioned analog service using copper lines. Copper lines carry not only voice and data signals but also the power to operate a standard, corded telephone. The phone company itself provides that power, which often keeps the phones working even when a problem at the power company knocks out your electric service. If you're switching to fiber-based service with a telephone company and want the option of returning to copper later on, ask whether the company can keep your copper line in place. (Sometimes companies remove the line to your home, making it difficult or impossible to restore copper service.)

Manhattan
East Village residents charge their phones by generator.

What you can do

Consider having basic service from the phone company. If you frequently lose power, think about having the lowest-cost phone-company service, perhaps for local calls only, even if you have a cable phone (bundled with TV and Internet service) for long-distance calls. Judging by the experiences of our survey respondents, there's a better chance that phone-company service will be operating during a power outage. That could be critical if you have an urgent need for a working landline (say, if a family member is seriously ill).

Keep a corded phone handy. If you have a landline phone, keep at least one corded phone in the house. Regular corded phones should work (assuming you have phone service) even if you lose household AC power. Phones that combine a corded phone on the base with cordless handsets can give you that reliability plus greater mobility. For most such models we've tested, the corded phone doesn't require AC power to make and receive calls, although electronic features such as the illuminated display and built-in phone directory might not work. Our phone Ratings also identify which tested models have a corded phone on the base.

Look for a cordless model with battery backup. Most cordless phones won't work without electricity unless they have some kind of power backup system. Some have a compartment in the charging base for a spare handset battery pack or for alkaline batteries for base-power backup. Some manufacturers have other backup features. Panasonic, for instance, says that you can place a charged handset in the base unit to make and receive calls with the other cordless handsets with models such as the KX-TG4773B.

Get a backup battery for a cable phone. A backup battery for your phone modem could keep your corded phones operating for up to 8 hours when your home loses power (provided the whole cable system isn't down). If your cable company doesn’t provide a free backup battery, try to negotiate one as a condition of retaining or accepting service. If the company won't, then buy it. Be sure to find out how the battery backup works and how long it will provide service before your phone line goes dead. (Verizon FiOS includes a backup battery in its system.)

Cell phones

Many of us can't imagine functioning without our cell phone, but there's a good chance you'll have to do just that during a storm or other disaster. After Sandy, loss of cell phone service was a widespread and lingering problem. One-third (33 percent) of all respondents had no cell phone signals for at least one full day after the storm, but the outage was longer for many—among those who lost service, a median of four days. One-fifth (21 percent) of those respondents said they resorted to driving to places where they could get a signal.

But getting cell phone signals was only half the battle. Twenty-seven percent of those who never lost service did lose power and had problems charging their phones (as well as other devices, such as tablets and laptops).

What you can do

Text. If you can't get a voice call through, try sending a text. The data demands of texts are relatively smaller, and they might go through when voice calls can't on networks that are congested or disabled by damage to their infrastructure. (If you have any family members who rarely or never text, teach them how to send and read text messages.)

Use a few carriers. If it's practical, you might want to have cell service with at least two carriers. An economical way to do that is to get a spare prepaid phone that uses a carrier other than your main one. Having access to two networks could double your chance of getting signals.

Get a little help from your friends. If there's no way to make a call from home, you can do what 18 percent of our survey respondents did: Visit friends or family members who have service, or join the 10 percent of respondents who spent more time than usual at work to make calls or send e-mail.

Think about batteries and chargers. When you know a major storm is heading your way, charge up all your devices so that you start out with a full battery. Be prepared for a few days without power. Consider buying an extra battery you can keep charged up. If you can't replace the battery—on an iPhone, for instance—you can get a charging case (juice pack) that extends the battery life. Make sure you have enough wall and car chargers for your family and for your devices, since you might want to recharge your phone at your sister's house while your spouse charges up a phone and tablet at work or on the commute. Consider getting a charger that uses solar power, batteries, or hand cranking instead of electricity.

Find places to charge up. Don't be shy about taking devices elsewhere to recharge. Take a cue from the resourceful consumers in our survey: 65 percent of the respondents charged up in their cars, 44 percent at the homes of friends or family, 27 percent at their workplaces, 17 percent at public spaces such as malls, 10 percent at retailers, and 7 percent at service providers such as dentists or hairdressers.

 

Internet access and TV service

Many homebound families had to keep themselves occupied and entertained without TVs and other electronic diversions, in some cases for a week or more. Books, board games, and conversation are always options, but the longer the outage, the greater the frustration.

Almost three out of four survey respondents (73 percent) had no TV or Internet service for at least a day, with a median outage of seven days for those affected. Even homeowners who never lost electrical power saw their screens go dark: 13 percent of that group had at least a minimum interruption to TV service and 15 percent to Internet service, most likely because the provider's infrastructure was down.

Many parents with school-age children stuck at home were challenged to keep their kids entertained without a TV or a tablet or other device with Internet access. Almost half (48 percent) of all parents in that boat said the situation had been at least somewhat stressful, and that climbed to 67 percent for those without electricity for 10 days or longer.

To keep things in perspective, respondents who didn't even have basics such as heat and running water didn't complain too much about the loss of TV and Internet service, which paled in comparison as an inconvenience. But those who used generators to power their homes during the storm were far more likely to have been concerned about the "luxury" of telecommunications. For example, almost one-fourth (23 percent) of households with stationary generators powering their homes said the lack of Internet service was their major inconvenience.

What you can do

Try an indoor TV antenna. If you have electrical power but no TV service from a cable, satellite, or phone company, you might be able to get over-the-air TV signals using an antenna. Indoor HD antennas are easy to hook up and inexpensive (some cost $20 or less at stores like Radio Shack and Walmart), and they can give you programming from the major broadcast networks (though not cable channels such as CNN). Your reception will depend on how far you are from a working transmitter and what the terrain around your home is like, but it's certainly worth a try. Just keep your receipt and all the packaging in case you have no luck and want to return the antenna.

Use other sources of entertainment. Of course, if you have power you can use your Blu-ray or DVD player or watch programs recorded to your DVR. Our use your streaming set-top box, such as an Apple TV or Roku. These streaming players deliver movies and TV shows from services such as Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, and Vudu over broadband connections.

If you lack power, watch movies on a portable player or the content you've downloaded to a laptop or tablet.

You can always do as some consumers we surveyed did and get a little help from your friends: 28 percent of respondents visited friends or family to watch TV news.

Remember the radio. It's also smart, of course, to have radios powered by battery or cranking so that you can get news while you're without electricity.

Connect via cellular service. If the cell towers in your area are working, you should be able to get Internet access on a smart phone, laptop, or tablet with 3G/4G service even if broadband service to your home is down. Our Ratings call out tablets, for example, with 3G/4G connectivity. In fact, you can also use a 3G/4G device as a Wi-Fi hotspot to give other devices access to the Internet. You have to activate the service, which might cost you $20 or so a month. Keep in mind that downloading lots of large files such as movies via a cellular service can get expensive, and using your phone for Internet access can drain the battery.

Find free hotspots. You can also venture into the neighborhood to find other hotspots. You can find free Wi-Fi at public libraries, municipal buildings, restaurants, retailers, and some hotels. However, many public Wi-Fi connections are not secure. Don't engage in any activities that might compromise your personal information over a connection you're not sure about.

 

Share your storm stories

Tell us and other readers about your experiences during Superstorm Sandy and share your advice on dealing with a natural disaster by joining this discussion in our forums.


Insurance and Personal Finance

Insurance problems of all types were prominent in our survey on the effects of Sandy. Flood insurance, homeowners insurance, and car insurance all came into play. Here are the key findings from our survey and advice on what you can do.

Fifty-four percent of all survey respondents experienced damage to their primary residence from Superstorm Sandy, with 44 percent reporting minor property damage and 10 percent suffering major damage. Although damage most commonly involved downed power lines and fences, where the home itself was concerned, the most frequently cited damages involved flooding (18 percent), the roof (14 percent), windows and doors (11 percent), non-flood water damage (9 percent), and walls (9 percent). Eleven percent said their homes were not inhabitable for three or more days, and 4 percent indicated their home was still not inhabitable at the time of our survey in March; consequently, we found those respondents living elsewhere.

Because two major pieces of home insurance are separated by a bright line, with flooding covered by the Federal Emergency Management Administration's National Flood Insurance Program and almost all other perils covered by the basic policy offered by private home insurers, we examined the different experiences separately.

Flood insurance

Thousands of people every year find their homes badly damaged by flooding, a peril not covered by traditional homeowners insurance. For those without special flood insurance, the cost to rebuild can be catastrophic.

In our survey about Sandy, flooding was the most frequently cited damage to homes (by 18 percent of those who had any kind of damage and 10 percent of all respondents). Yet almost 30 percent of all homeowners whose homes experienced flood damage had no flood insurance. And those who did were often underinsured. Just 41 percent who filed a flood claim through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) said their policy covered most of their flood-related damage.

Keep in mind that flooding isn't just overflow from the ocean or a river or stream rushing through basement windows and doors. It also means mudflows and seepage through walls from oversaturated soil. Paved driveways and parking lots can divert rainwater into homes that are nowhere near a body of water.

Copiague, New York
A house is partially submerged as high tide, rain, and winds flood local streets.

What you can do

Assess your risk. You don't have to live on the shore to be in jeopardy. FloodSmart.gov, the Federal Emergency Management Agency website promoting national flood insurance, notes that more than 20 percent of flood claims originate in areas deemed "moderate" or "low" risk. So regardless of where you live, flood insurance is often worth buying.

Be aware of coverage limits. Coverage is capped at $250,000 per dwelling and $100,000 for contents. The insurance also pays for debris removal. There are eligibility requirements, however, and numerous exclusions; check here for a summary (PDF).

Estimate your premium. What you'll pay depends on whether your home is located in a low-, moderate-, or high-risk area; you can find your home on your area's flood map. Your municipality's offices or a local real estate or homeowners insurance agent may also be able to show you a map.
 
Coverage for a dwelling in a "low risk" area can cost as little as $129 a year. The average policy costs about $625 a year. That's not cheap, but it's far less than the $35,000 average flood claim paid out by the government between 2007 and 2001, the latest available figures. You can get an estimate of your premium at the FloodSmart.gov website; just fill out the red box on the right-hand side. Premiums are expected to go up for some areas in the near future because of changes to the way the National Flood Insurance Program is run.

The federal government is currently updating flood maps nationwide; your moderate-risk area may now be considered high-risk, with an accompanying rise in premium. You can check whether your region's flood map has recently been amended or is scheduled for an update here. If you think your dwelling is incorrectly categorized, you can appeal your flood zone designation.

Under certain circumstances you may be eligible for financial assistance to cover a higher flood insurance premium.
 
Buy it now. National flood insurance typically has to be in effect for 30 days before you can use it. So if you have any concerns about storms on the way, now is the time to act.

Homeowners insurance

Twenty percent of all homeowners in our survey filed a homeowners insurance claim. From an insurance perspective, when all the dust settles, Sandy looks more likely to resemble Hurricane Katrina in 2005 than Hurricane Ike in 2008. With so many Sandy cases still pending, a direct comparison may be premature, but only 56 percent of Sandy claim-filers were highly satisfied with how their insurer handled the claim. That’s on a par with the 51 percent highly satisfied in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and significantly lower than the 73 percent highly satisfied after Hurricane Ike.

Typically, our home insurance satisfaction surveys dating back to 1988 show that homeowners are highly satisfied, and 79 percent said so in our latest report, "Protect Your Home." But major natural disasters quickly overtax and overwhelm the home insurers' normal ranks of claims adjusters. Consequently, almost half of all claims for $40,000 or more in damage were pending as of March 2013, when we conducted our survey, and 13 percent had been rejected. It was no surprise, then, that a significantly lower percentage of those who filed major damage claims were highly satisfied with their insurer's handling of the claim—only 34 percent. Minor Sandy damage claims were settled fairly quickly.

What you can do

When the next storm hits, follow this priority list, after making sure your family and pets are safe:
 
Prevent further damage. For example, cover a hole in the roof with a tarp and move undamaged furniture and other items to a safe place. But don’t repair anything or dispose of ruined property until an adjuster has examined everything. Keep receipts for any money you spend to prevent further losses.

Document losses. As soon as practical, photograph or shoot a video of the damage. Don't forget, your smart phone may be your handiest camera.  

File a claim. Report the loss to your insurance agent as soon as practical, via smart-phone apps offered by many major insurers. That will help get your claim filed and moving quicker.

Stand up for your rights. Most important, be ready to fight for what you're due in the wake of a major natural disaster. If your insurer says your policy doesn't cover certain damages or if the settlement offer is too low, ask to see the policy exclusion or limit in writing. Misled by policy wording? Contact a local lawyer who specializes in insurance law.  

If you reach an impasse, consider getting help from a public adjuster. You'll pay a hefty fee, typically 10 percent of the policy payout, but a study of more than 76,000 claims in hurricane-prone Florida found that policyholders who used a public adjuster got payments that were 19 to 747 percent larger than those who didn't, though the cases took longer to settle. Find public adjusters on the website of the National Association of Public Insurance Adjusters. Look for references, several years of experience, and a state license if required.

Car insurance

There were far fewer claims for damage to cars than to homes following Sandy, according to our survey. That lower percentage is possibly related to the fact that the so-called comprehensive coverage necessary for you to get reimbursed for hurricane damage, like falling trees and heavy branches and floodwater, is optional, so not everyone has it.

Some 500 of the survey respondents said their cars had been damaged by the storm. Three-fifths of those were flooded. Of those whose cars were damaged, 76 percent said they filed an insurance claim. Of those claims,  93 percent were settled, meaning the insurer either totaled the car or paid to repair the damage. The remaining claims were either rejected (5 percent) or remain pending (2 percent.) These results fall in line with previous surveys we've conducted on auto-insurance claims.

Consumers' satisfaction with their claims service was a mixed bag—better than homeowner insurance claims related to the storm, but worse than auto insurance claims in previous surveys we’ve conducted. About 71 percent of respondents were highly satisfied with their claim service, compared with only 56 percent who were highly satisfied with a claim for home damage. However, close to 90 percent of respondents in previous surveys were highly satisfied with the outcome of auto claims. Perhaps that has to do with the extent of the damage from Superstorm Sandy, which may have overtaxed insurance companies’ ability to process claims.

What you can do

Review your insurance needs. We recommend that you have collision and comprehensive coverage on new cars and keep it for at least several years; we usually suggest you drop this option when the annual premium equals or exceeds 10 percent of your car's cash value. Otherwise, you could end up paying more over time in premiums and a deductible than you would recoup for repair or replacement of your damaged or totaled vehicle, since the insurer will never pay out more than the vehicle's cash value, less the deductible.

Don't buy insurance based on premiums alone. A low rate is appealing, but not if it means you won't get good service and a fair settlement if you need to make a claim. Look at the whole picture before deciding on the kind of car insurance coverage you need and what company you want to use.

Financial survival kit

You may not be able to live in your home for a while after a disaster like Sandy, so it's important to make sure you have on hand the documents you'll need to take care of important tasks like filing an insurance claim or getting medical treatment. So while you're gathering some essentials like food, water, and first-aid items for an emergency kit, don't forget to include copies of important financial documents, such as your homeowners, vehicle, and health insurance policies, and those providers' contact information.

What you can do

Get a kit. For a complete list of financial records to have on hand, download FEMA's Emergency Financial First Aid Kit (PDF). Keep those records filed on your computer.

Keep backups. Back up the records on CDs, DVDs, an external hard drive, or other medium at least once a year. (We don't recommend thumb drives for long-term archiving because they're easily lost.) Keep at least one other backup in a location other than your home (say, with your attorney) in case of a catastrophe. Or encrypt the data, including your passwords, on your computer and backup devices using software such as TrueCrypt (free), which works on Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems. You can back up files encrypted with TrueCrypt to a DVD or CD. (It's best to keep them in a fire-resistant safe.)

You could also use one of the dozens of online backup services, such as Google Drive and Carbonite. We haven’t tested these cloud storage sites, but there are some factors to consider. Among the benefits: Your information will be accessible from any computer and many mobile devices. However, you'll need an Internet connection to access your data in an emergency, and 73 percent of the people we surveyed lost Internet service for at least one day after Sandy, and 33 percent had no cell service for a median of four days. And you'll be relying on a third party to safeguard your personal financial information. Because backup sites aggregate so much information, they're possible targets for hackers and cyberterrorists. If you use one, make sure your data will be encrypted in transit and while stored there.

Keep cash on hand. You may need cash to purchase necessities for your family during an emergency, but your bank branches may not be open and ATMs may not work or may not be restocked. One-fifth of our survey respondents were unable to do any banking transactions after Sandy. Get enough cash to supply your family with necessities for at least 72 hours, suggests Fred Smith, president of the HOPE Coalition of America. Credit card networks may be down, and stores and pharmacies may not have a lot of change on hand, so keep this stockpile in small bills. Many merchants may also be reluctant to accept large bills due to fears of fraud. "Counterfeiters swoop in after a disaster to unload bills," Smith says. Keep your cash sealed in a waterproof bag inside your emergency kit.

Share your storm stories

Tell us and other readers about your experiences during Superstorm Sandy and share your advice on dealing with a natural disaster by joining this discussion in our forums.


Driving Safety and Smart Buying

Our advice can keep you safe if you must drive during and after a storm, flood, or other weather emergency.

Prep your car

It’s best to have your car ready for a major storm before it hits. Most important, fill your gas tank and have a cell-phone charge cord handy. Should your area lose power, this simple preparation could ensure you can call for help or drive to a safer area. Here are some other things to check in advance:

Tires. Worn tires are especially dangerous on slick roads. An easy way to check whether your tires need replacing is to insert a quarter into the tread with George's head facing down. If the top of his head is visible, it's time to buy new tires.

Check the tire pressure once a month. Don't go by the maximum inflation stamped on the side of the tire. Check the vehicle owner's manual or the placard on the driver's doorjamb for the proper pressure. (See our tire buying advice and Ratings, as well as our reviews of tire-pressure gauges.)

Wiper blades. Worn blades will leave streaks, missed spots, and smears and can also scratch your windshield. Our tests have shown that even the best windshield wiper blades will show wear after just six months. If you haven't replaced yours in a while, now might be a good time. Check washer fluid, too. (See our wiper buying advice and Ratings.)

Defroster. Clear the defroster, making sure nothing is blocking the vents, and check that it's working properly.

Lights. Turn them on and walk around the car to make sure they're all working properly. If you have an older car with hazed lenses that are restricting light, consider using a headlight-restoration kit. It is a cost-effective project you can do yourself.

Emergency kit. Stock your car with a first-aid kit, reflective hazard triangle or flares, tire-pressure gauge, foam tire sealant or a portable compressor and plug, spare fuses, flashlight, gloves, auto-club card or roadside assistance number, $20 in cash, and blanket. Your car should be equipped with a jack. It is important to try it at home before you need it on the side of the road, which might be on a dark, rainy night. A larger wrench could make removing the lug nuts easier. See our complete advice on emergency kits.

Hoboken, New Jersey

Fuel shortages

Finding gas to was a problem for about 71 percent of our survey respondents. Fourteen percent of respondents said lack of gasoline was their major inconvenience. Of respondents with jobs, 18 percent said the lack of gas hindered their ability to drive to work. Among those who didn't lose power, 40 percent said the lack of gas was their biggest problem. (Among households with portable generators, which typically run on gasoline, 20 percent were inconvenienced by closed gas stations or long lines.)

What you can do

Gas up and keep fuel fresh. When forecasters warn of a big storm, fill up. As with fuel for generators, store gasoline for your car in approved metal or plastic storage containers.

Remember, gasoline begins spoiling after as little as a month. So if you have old gas, add the recommended dose of fuel stabilizer, or better yet, transfer the gas to your car and refill the containers with fresh gasoline.

Take precautions. Gasoline is a volatile and hazardous fuel, so follow best safety practices when storing it:

  • Keep gasoline, kerosene and other fuels well out of the reach of children.
  • Place gasoline containers in a well-ventilated, cool area.
  • Never store gasoline or other fuels inside the house, in a basement, or near a fuel-burning appliance, open flames, pilot lights, stoves, heaters, electric mowers, or any other sources of ignition.
  • Never smoke near gasoline.
  • Never store gasoline in the trunk of a car.

Once the storm is over, use any gas remaining by pouring it into your car.

Driving safety

During a serious storm, it is best to wait it out indoors. But if you absolutely must venture out in a car, these tips may help you to arrive safely.

Heavy rain

Downpours are always hazardous because your wheels lose traction on wet roads. But they're especially dangerous after a long, dry period, because an oily residue on the roads can make them slick.

  • Slow down to avoid hydroplaning, which can happen when the tires lose contact with the road as they skim across the surface of the water. That can lead to a loss of traction and prevent the vehicle from responding to steering, braking, or acceleration. The water doesn't have to be deep; even a thin film can cause problems. To minimize hydroplaning, slow down and don't steer or brake suddenly. And make sure your tires are in good shape and are properly inflated.
  • Avoid puddles if you can. If you can't, slow down but don't brake suddenly or jerk the wheel. And never drive through moving or standing water if you don't know how deep it is. You could do serious damage to the car or even be washed away.
  • Don't use cruise control during downpours. To maintain a steady speed, the system can cause the car to accelerate suddenly on slick pavement and you could lose control.

Heavy wind

Windy conditions can really push around tall vehicles like SUVs and vans. But a light, small car can be buffeted easily, too, and cause you to swerve.

  • Keep both hands tightly on the wheel when it's gusty. Quick spurts of wind might require more steering corrections.
  • Keep an eye on your speed if you're driving into a headwind. You might have to give the car some extra gas to keep the pace.
  • If the wind is blowing strongly from one side, steer into it slightly to stay on course. Be alert for a break in the wind, because you might have to quickly straighten the wheel and steer into it again with the next gust.

Be especially alert when entering and leaving a tunnel or other protected area or when passing or being passed by a large truck.

After the storm

Big storms with heavy winds and rain can wreak destruction across a large area. But even when roads are passable, there can be real dangers. The following tips will help keep you and fellow motorists safe.

Call your insurance company if the car was damaged by the storm. Take photos of the vehicle and context, showing the area around the car. Having visual evidence of how the damaged occurred may help with processing the claim. (Learn more about car insurance.)

Hold on to your emergency kit. Because you don't know what you'll face driving through storm-damaged areas, keep the emergency kit is in the car. And bring a cell phone; the drive can be a good time to recharge your personal electronic devices.

Keep speeds low, courtesy high. This has been a stressful time for everyone in the hurricane zone, so travel slowly—you never know what obstacles you may face—and be extra patient. Be kind to others, be predictable, and follow the laws.

Avoid driving through standing water. During most storms, a puddle is just an opportunity to splash, but after a hurricane or heavy storm, it can conceal deep potholes and tire-puncturing debris. And what appear to be puddles can actually be deep pools of water. Never drive into water of unknown depth.

Avoid driving under fallen trees. Many of them are resting across power lines. While it may be tempting to drive under a tree that is arching over the road, don't do it. It may look safe, but mere chance is what’s holding the tree in its position. Further, power lines may or may not have electricity coursing through them. Even if you avoid driving on the lines, a wind gust could blow an unseen wire into contact with your car.

Don't assume road debris is just sticks and leaves. Many roads will be covered with all manner of plant debris from the winds, but within that mess can be nails and other objects unfriendly to tires. Keep in mind, traveling just after a storm, you have a higher likelihood of experiencing a flat tire.

Keep brakes dry. After driving through large puddles, lightly apply the brake pedal to dry the brakes off. Wet brakes can take longer to slow a vehicle.

Beware of dark stop lights and intersections. With many areas still without power, intersections that are normally well lighted and/or have traffic lights may be dark. Don't see this as an opportunity to speed on through. Exercise caution and courtesy. There may be line workers present, pedestrians, or distracted drivers. Come to a complete stop, survey the surroundings, make eye contact with other motorists, and give a friendly wave before advancing.

Watch out for pedestrians. Many people are simply walking their neighborhood’s streets to assess damage, check in on friends, and get a little exercise. People are more likely to be literally in the streets because sidewalks may be blocked, and the reduced vehicle traffic may encourage them to be less cautious.

Flooded cars

If your car has been flooded, there are several things you can do to help mitigate the damage and speed along any insurance claim:

  • Take pictures of the car while it's flooded. Having evidence of how the damage occurred may help get the claim processed.
  • Don’t try to start the car. As the engine turns, it may suck in water, causing even bigger problems.
  • Seal up the car. Use a tarp and some duct tape or packing tape to cover any broken windows and stop more water from coming in.
  • Have the damage assessed by a professional. Some may come to your house if the car isn't drivable.
  • If you can, try to dry out the car as quickly as possible. Clean and dry it thoroughly, especially in small corners, and at electrical connection points. You may need to replace carpet and other fabrics.

Damaged cars on the market

Hundreds of thousands of cars were damaged during Superstorm Sandy. And while many of them have been scrapped, many others will find their way back to market and into the hands of unsuspecting used-car buyers.

In addition to causing corrosion, water can make electrical systems erratic, resulting in intermittent glitches, and air bags might malfunction. The engine, transmission, brakes, cooling system, or other mechanicals might fail. And mold and other contaminants can cause health problems for drivers and their passengers.

In a typical post-flood scenario, an auto insurer will declare a water-damaged car a total loss and pay off the owner. The car might then be sold for salvage. Some buyers might be looking for usable parts, but others will try to fix up the car for resale. Some cars with titles branded (or amended) with some variation of “flood damaged” or “salvage” might be resold to unwitting buyers. Unscrupulous sellers might produce counterfeit titles without the brand or use inconsistent title branding between states to try to launder away the evidence.

"California, the largest car market in the United States, doesn’t even have a flood brand," says Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, a nonprofit organization. "And these cars can end up everywhere. States that are big car markets and have lax consumer protection laws are big dumping grounds."

But not everyone who sells a flooded car is a scam artist. Some owners might fix up their cars and sell them later without even being aware that they’re passing along a ticking time bomb.

How to spot a flood-damaged car

Water damage can be hard to detect, but there are some telltale signs you should be aware of:

  • Inspect the carpets to see if they are wet, damp, or muddy.
  • Check the seat-mounting screws to see if there is any evidence that they have been removed. To dry the carpets, the seats must be removed, not generally a part of normal maintenance.
  • Inspect the lights. Headlights and taillights are expensive to replace, and a visible water line may still show on the lens or the reflector.
  • Inspect the difficult-to-clean places, such as gaps between panels in the trunk and under the hood. Waterborne mud and debris may still appear there.
  • Look for mud or debris on the bottom edges of brackets or panels, where it wouldn’t settle naturally.
  • Look at the heads of any unpainted, exposed screws under the dashboard. Unpainted metal in flood cars will show signs of rust.
  • Check whether the rubber drain plugs under the car and on the bottom of doors look as if they have been removed recently. It may have been done to drain floodwater.
  • Check the history. The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, at vehiclehistory.gov, provides reports on cars with branded titles from approved commercial data companies. The cost for a history report varies, but most of them are $2 to $13. Insurers, salvage pools, and junkyards are required by law to report to this database regularly.
  • Have the car inspected. Before buying any car, have it thoroughly checked out by a qualified mechanic. If you buy one online from someone in another area, services such as Inspect My Ride and Carchex can arrange to have it looked over and will e-mail you an inspection report, often with photographs.

If you live in an area affected by flooding and are trying to sell a car that was not damaged, be aware that buyers may still suspect that it was. Consider having a mechanic inspect the car before you sell it so that you can present potential buyers with your car's clean bill of health.

Share your storm stories

Tell us and other readers about your experiences during Superstorm Sandy and share your advice on dealing with a natural disaster by joining this discussion in our forums.


Food Safety

A week without power—the median for respondents who lost power in the storm—is far longer than food can be kept safe without refrigeration. Of all of our survey respondents who applied for disaster relief from FEMA, 23 percent included food replacement costs in their request. To avoid foodborne illnesses in such events, the Food Safety and Inspection Service recommends throwing out perishables after just 4 hours without power.

What you can do

Improved weather forecasts give residents in the path of advancing storms plenty of notice. Use that time to prepare for a power outage. In addition to candles and flashlights, stock up on packaged food that doesn't require cooking. And to keep the food in your refrigerator and freezer safe for as long as possible, the FSIS recommends making these preparations:

  • Put appliance thermometers in the refrigerator and the freezer. That way you’ll know the temperature if the power goes out.
  • Keep the freezer set at 0° F or below and the refrigerator is set 37° to 40° F.
  • Group food together in the freezer to help it stay cold longer.
  • Use any extra space to freeze containers of water for ice to help keep food cold in the freezer, refrigerator, or coolers.
  • Freeze gel packs ahead of time for use in coolers.
  • Freeze refrigerated items such as leftovers, milk, and fresh meat and poultry that you may not need immediately—this helps keep them at a safe temperature longer.
  • Find out ahead of time where dry ice and block ice can be purchased.
  • Have coolers on hand to keep refrigerated food cold if the power will be out for more than 4 hours.
  • Store food on shelves that will be safely out of the way of contaminated water in case of flooding.

If you lose power. Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to maintain cold temperatures. If unopened, the refrigerator will keep food safely cold for about 4 hours. A full freezer will hold the temperature for approximately 48 hours (24 hours if it is half full) if the door remains closed. The FSIS offers these guidelines:

  • Discard refrigerated perishable food such as meat, poultry, fish, soft cheeses, milk, eggs, leftovers, and deli items after 4 hours without power.
  • Food may be safely refrozen if it still contains ice crystals or is at 40° F or below when checked with a food thermometer.
  • Buy dry ice if you think the power will be out for a prolonged period. Fifty pounds of dry ice can keep an 18-cubic-foot freezer cold for two days.
  • When power is restored, check the temperature of the freezer. If the appliance thermometer reads 40° F or below, the food is safe to refreeze.
  • Discard any food that is not in a waterproof container if there is any chance that it has come into contact with flood water.
  • Never taste food to determine its safety, and when in doubt, throw it out.

Getting rid of spoiled-food odors

Here’s what to do:

  • Unplug the refrigerator, empty the freezer and refrigerator, and dispose of all the food.
  • Remove shelves, crispers, and ice trays. Wash them thoroughly with hot water and detergent.
  • Rinse with a sanitizing solution (1 tablespoon unscented liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water).
  • Wash the interior of the refrigerator and freezer, including the door and gasket, with hot water and baking soda. Rinse with sanitizing solution.
  • Leave the door open for about 15 minutes to allow free air circulation.

If that doesn't work, try any or all of the following:

  • Wipe the inside of the refrigerators or freezer with equal parts vinegar and water. Vinegar provides acid, which destroys mildew.
  • Leave the door open and allow the refrigerator to air out for several days.
  • Stuff the refrigerator and the freezer with rolled newspapers. Close the door and leave for several days. Remove the paper and clean the interior with vinegar and water.
  • Sprinkle fresh coffee grounds or baking soda loosely in a large, shallow container in the bottom of the refrigerator and the freezer.
  • Place a cotton swab soaked with vanilla extract inside the refrigerator and the freezer. Close the door for 24 hours. Check for odors.
  • Use a commercial product available at hardware and housewares stores. Follow the manufacturer's instructions.

Share your storm stories

Tell us and other readers about your experiences during Superstorm Sandy and share your advice on dealing with a natural disaster by joining this discussion in our forums.


   

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