Image: New Jersey's Coast Hit By Hurricane Irene
Michael Loccisano  /  Getty Images
A tree brought down by Hurricane Irene leans against a house in Manasquan, N.J.
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updated 8/29/2011 3:34:01 PM ET 2011-08-29T19:34:01

If it wasn't the wind and the rain, it was the rising water that damaged countless homes from North Carolina to Vermont.

Homeowners are picking up the soggy pieces and assessing the damage after Irene swept through. Although the hurricane-turned-tropical storm didn't cause as much destruction as initially feared, it touched communities in a dozen states and left an estimated $3 billion to $7 billion of mangled siding, downed trees and worse in its wake.

Several insurance companies made automated calls to their customers in advance of the storm, detailing what numbers to call and what type of information to have ready if it was necessary to file a claim. If you didn't get a call or don't have the correct phone number at hand, the easiest way to begin is by contacting your agent. Insurers also have toll-free hotlines to accept initial filings and most will also allow customers to start a claim online. A number of companies offer smartphone apps that can get the process rolling, as well.

Story: Construction may see brief bounce from Irene

"Our priority is the most severe claims first," said Dick Leudke, a spokesman for State Farm Insurance — generally those where the home has been destroyed or rendered uninhabitable. State Farm, Allstate and other insurers placed claims adjusters and other staff members on standby before the storm, ready to respond to the hardest-hit areas. None could say how long it would take to process a claim, because damage assessments are still underway.

If your home suffered any damage, start the claims process as soon as possible.

Be aware that after you file a claim, in most cases, your insurance company will arrange to send an adjuster out to investigate.

Details to provide
If you had to evacuate, ideally you brought along a copy of your homeowners policy in your emergency kit. That's because you'll need the policy number to begin the claims process. But if you can't provide it, your insurance company should be able to call up the number in its systems.

If you have your policy in hand, check to make sure you're covered for hurricane damage, and what your hurricane deductible is. These amounts apply only to hurricane-related damage, and typically range from 1 percent to 5 percent of the insured value of the home. Homeowners will have to cover any deductible before collecting on a claim. Often, in areas like New England where hurricanes are less common, deductibles can be high.

To file a claim, you'll need to explain what sort of damage your house sustained. If it is safe to do so, walk around and through the house and make a list of all visible signs of damage, and any affected contents.

Pictures are helpful for illustrating the extent of the damage, especially if they can be compared with "before" photos. Don't throw away damaged items until an insurance adjuster sees them, in order to help ensure full coverage. Items that are unsafe can be photographed and discarded if necessary.

If the house can't be occupied, make sure to keep receipts for any hotel rooms, restaurant receipts, and any associated expenses. Most homeowner's policies cover living expenses when a homeowner is forced out of their house, although there is usually a deductible associated.

Repairs
Insurers expect homeowners to protect their property from further damage whenever possible. That means you should cover any broken windows and make any other temporary repairs that it's safe to make.

During this process, keep a list of any steps you've taken and a complete list of the supplies you've purchased. Your insurance company will reimburse you for any reasonable expenses to make temporary repairs.

Claims adjusters will in most cases visit a home to assess the damage. Hold off on making any significant repairs until that visit takes place or your insurance company gives the go-ahead.

You should start to find a licensed contractor to provide a written estimate for any repairs. Ultimately, you'll need to provide this to the adjuster. The estimates should detail what materials will be used and provide an estimate of the labor costs. It's common for contractors to charge more after a widespread disaster because their work is in higher demand, so be prepared to pay extra. Materials costs can rise, as well, if shortages develop in affected areas.

Once the adjuster settles on an amount, the insurance company will then typically provide a check upfront for the cash value of the repair, and cover any difference after the work is done. Specific rules on payments vary by state.

Personal property
Homeowner's insurance policies rarely cover flood-related damage. In almost all cases, separate flood insurance is required.

The National Flood Insurance Program is the main source for flood insurance policies in the U.S., though private insurers write and administer most policies backed by the federal government. Contact the company that provided your flood insurance to begin a claim.

Standard flood policies cover the cost of structural damage, major appliances and equipment, such as furnaces and water heaters, and any associated cleanup. Coverage for your personal belongings typically requires an additional rider on the policy.

If you have coverage for your personal property, you'll need to be able to provide a detailed inventory of anything that was damaged or destroyed. This should include a description of each item, the date of purchase or at least an estimate, the cost of the item and an approximate replacement cost.

If you don't have flood insurance, there may be federal disaster assistance available. All of the states impacted by Irene declared disasters, many before the storm hit, which is required for federal help to kick in. That may come in the form of grants or low-cost loans.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Irene's impact on insurers

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