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Blizzard of claims likely after storm's damage becomes clear Insurers, officials offer advice on getting help

Owners of storm-battered homes and cars should send out a blizzard of insurance claims to get financial help for repairing the damage, insurers and industry regulators say.

Standard homeowner insurance pays for damage from fallen branches and from the weight of snow and ice, the state Insurance Department says. It also covers damage from wind and wind-whipped rain.

For a downed tree, the typical policy pays $500 for removal, to a cap of $1,000 for more than one tree, said Timothy Dodge, research director for the Independent Insurance Agents Association of New York. The cap doesn't apply if removal is part of a repair to the house or garage.

Many insurers don't cover removal at all, the state Insurance Department said, making it important to check the policy.

To maximize their insurance check, property owners should move now to:

* File a claim;

* Document the damage;

* Guard against further harm.

"The first thing to do is to report claims as quickly as possible," said Andrew Mais, public information officer for the state Insurance Department. Homeowner insurance is required for a mortgage, so most homes are covered.

If it's a car that got hit, people with comprehensive auto insurance can make a claim.

And apartment dwellers may get money for damaged indoor property if they have renters' insurance, according to the insurance agents' group.

Agents may be temporarily out of business because of power outages, but that shouldn't delay claims.

"If people can't get hold of their agent, they should call the 800 number" to get the claim process started, State Farm Insurance spokesman Bob Mayrose said.

While waiting for repairs, property owners should do what they can to guard against further damage. Meaning "if you've got a hole in your roof, cover it," Mais said -- provided that the repair can be made safely.

Before making temporary repairs, owners should write a description of the damage and document it with photos or video. They also should keep receipts for materials like tarp, and keep debris for insurance claims workers to see. "Don't throw anything away," Mais said.

He said to list damaged indoor furniture and other contents -- and find receipts if possible to support the claim.

Not usually covered by homeowner policies is food spoiled because of power outages or flooding damage that may follow the storm, Dodge said.

There's no firm deadline for responding to a claim, but insurers should get back to customers within a reasonable time, Mais said. High numbers of claims may slow insurers, but most should respond in a week "if they don't want to have angry customers," Dodge said.

Consumers with complaints about their insurer or questions about making a claim can call the Insurance Department's disaster hotline starting Monday at (800) 339-1759, between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Damage not covered by insurance may qualify for a low-interest loan. Once the federal government declares a disaster area, property owners can apply for loans from the Small Business Administration, the agency said. With rates under 4 percent -- currently 3.1 percent -- the disaster loans provide up to $200,000 for homes and $40,000 for cars or furnishings.

e-mail: fwilliams@buffnews.com

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