Even as first-responders continue to manage and control the wildfire situation in Fort McMurray, Alta., displaced residents continue to make a home in temporary accommodations set up in various cities and towns throughout southern Alberta. But as the situation stabilizes, questions pile up. Has my home burnt down? Will the smoke have caused irreprebable damage? Is my car still stuck, with an empty gas tank, on Highway 63?
To help, here are six steps to take if the wildfires have had a direct impact on you.
Step 1: There is no urgency, but emergency cash is available
For many homeowners, the biggest concern is whether or not the most expensive asset in their nest egg—their home—is still standing. But even prolonged exposure to smoke can cause significant enough damage to require a full repair and remodel of a home. This expensive process just compounds the job and economic prospects of a region already hit by falling oil prices. The good news is that most homeowners insurance policies will cover repairs and replacement of home and belongings damaged or destroyed by fire. But to get this coverage to pay for these repairs, you’ll first need to contact your insurance provider. As soon as you contact your insurance company, you set in motion a claims process—the official task of assessing and paying for the catastrophic damage done to your home and personal belongings. But as dramatic as this all sounds, there is no urgency. Whether you call today, tomorrow or few weeks from now, your coverage will still be in place and you will still be eligible for full coverage, under your policy terms. Just know that the insurance companies can’t start a claim until they know damage has been done, explains Steve Kee, director of communications for the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC).
For many, though, there’s a lot of uncertainty as to who to call and when. Many homeowners fled with few belongings and even less have access to important documentation, such as their home insurance policy. To help, IBC set up a hotline. By calling the toll-free number (1-877-227-5422) homeowners will get help in tracking down their insurance policy. For those with Internet access, you can also email your questions or concerns to FortMacFire@ibc.ca).
Homeowners who already know who their insurance provider is should consider going in person to one of the 26 temporary sites that have been set up by various insurance providers throughout Edmonton and Lac la Biche. Even as the crisis was hitting its peak, many insurance companies were setting up temporary command posts, tasked with initiating homeowner claims and, eventually, evaluating the loss of the more the 15% of homes and businesses that were damaged by the wildfires in Fort McMurray.
Get emergency cash
Evacuees can also expect help from the Alberta government. Every displaced adult and child is eligible for a pre-loaded debit card—$1,25o to every displaced adult and $500 for every displaced child. The entire effort will cost the Alberta NDP government $100 million.
To find out if you qualify for this emergency provincial funding, go online or call 310-4455. Keep in mind that the Alberta government has asked that those not in dire need of the money to wait before making a claim. Since this money is to be used for short-term relief—to help people pay for immediate expenses, such as accommodation and food, while displaced from their homes—the government wants to make sure that those in extreme situations get help first.
As reported by the CBC, most of the money pledged by the Federal government will actually go to the Red Cross, to help out with the cost of providing emergency aid and relief. The Canadian Red Cross plans to start providing $600 per adult and $300 per child in aid.
Get prescriptions, for free
Pharmacists are dispensing urgent drugs for displaced residents after accessing patient records. If you don’t know who has your medication records, and you’re part of a Group Health Care plan, you can contact the IBC toll-free number (1-877-227-5422) for help. Once your patient records are verified, you will get access to prescriptions with the cost to be picked up by the Alberta government. For those that require medications, but can’t find their medical insurance information, many local Alberta pharmacies are waiving the need for regular customer insurance information. Talk to the pharmacist for more information.
Let people know you are safe
The provincial government and the Red Cross are asking that all evacuees register and continue to check-in with the Red Cross. Even if you’ve already registered with an evacuation centre, they are asking evacuees to check-in again. Go online to RedCross.ca or call 1-888-350-6070. As of early this week, 36,831 households had registered with the Red Cross. Family members and evacuees trying to reunite can also contact the Red Cross.
Get your ID
Those that had to evacuate their homes without important documents can get replacements, free of charge. Lost driver’s licences, birth certificates or ID cards will be reissued, free of charge, at any registry agent. The main service centre location in Edmonton is located at 9700 Jasper Avenue, while the Lac la Biche service centre can be found at 8702 91 Avenue (this location is only open until 3:30pm, local time). Click here to find more Alberta service centres.
Apply for Employment Insurance
For those facing a loss of employment, the Government of Canada is urging you to apply for Employment Insurance assistance, even if you do not have a Record of Employment. You will need your Social Insurance Number, but if you cannot remember your SIN, you’re still encouraged to apply. For online applications, you will be asked: Were you given a reference code to submit with this application? The answer is “yes” and you are asked to enter the following reference code: 4812012016030516.
You will need to provide a mailing and residential address to complete your application and for the Government to process it. For more information, go online.
Step 2: Track your evacuation expenses
Even if you haven’t called your insurance provider, remember to track your expenses. That means keeping a log of all money spent and keeping every receipt associated with your living expenses, while you’re displaced from your home.
While this might sound like a tiresome process, it’s necessary if you want to be reimbursed. That’s because many insurance policies come with additional living expense coverage, while some companies will even cut a cheque for those stranded in evacuation centres.
Get insurance company reimbursements
However, to be reimbursed through your insurance coverage, you will need to keep receipts. Whether you end up buying bottled water, a toothbrush, a meal in a restaurant, or rent a room, make sure you keep the receipts. This doesn’t your coverage will reimburse you for every expense you incur while displaced from your home, but of those that are covered, you’ll only get money with a receipt.
Once the evacuation order is lifted—and the Fire Chief for Fort McMurray is stating that it may still be another couple of weeks before you can return—you’ll need to return home to gauge the damage. For at least 15% of the city’s residents, the homes will be uninhabitable. In this case, most insurance providers will continue to pay living expenses, that includes accommodation and meals. Just remember: Keep a record of all your expenses, keep your receipts, and stay in frequent contact with your insurance provider. Why? Because you don’t want to purchase a big ticket item, such as a bed, only to find out later that some or all of that expense isn’t covered. Not all expenses will be reimbursed, as CBC reported earlier this week, when a mother of two, Florence Maeko, tried to claim her rental car cost from her insurance provider, The Cooperators.
Maeko and her sons ditched their SUV on the side of a road already littered with cars and trucks. Nearly a week later, they’re staying with friends in Edmonton. But Maeko said her insurance company, The Cooperators, won’t cover the cost of a rental vehicle unless she provides evidence the car she left behind is damaged.
Step 3: Talk to your bank
Evacuees that were still paying off mortgages before fleeing the burning Wood Buffalo region may be surprised to learn that even if they have no home to return to, they are still responsible for making those mortgage payments.
Insurance claim coverage won’t take over mortgage payments or any other debt repayments, such as credit card balances or car loans. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get help.
Help with mortgage payments
“The vast majority of mortgage lenders, from the big banks to the non-bank lenders, such as Street Capital, MCAP and First National, are letting people defer mortgage payments or allowing homeowners to re-amortize their payments,” explains Robert McLister, an independent mortgage broker and founder of RateSpy.com. While deferred, interest-only and re-amortization adds time and interest to your overall borrowing costs, it also allows borrowers some breathing room on their monthly bills, at a time when cash flow can be a challenge.
If you’re in the unfortunate position of having your mortgage come up for renewal this year, you may also be hit with the perfect storm: a devalued housing market in the Fort McMurray region, combined with no or low employment, combined with little personal equity in the home.
“It will be interesting to see what happens when home values start dropping and homeowners who put down only 5% or 10% to buy their home have to go and renegotiate a new mortgage term,” says McLister. Homeowners could find they have an underwater mortgage—meaning you owe your lender more than your home is worth.
An underwater mortgage can happen for a variety of reasons, but the most common is when a buyer puts down a relatively small down payment when purchasing a home only to have the home’s value decline.
If you think you may end up in this position, be proactive. Talk to your lender to discuss options to help you pay for your home. If that doesn’t help, talk to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) or Genworth Canada. While mortgage loan insurance doesn’t protect you (it protects the banks, read more here), Genworth and CMHC are often quite proactive in trying to find solutions to help homeowners keep their homes, rather than defaulting. To see if you qualify for assistance use Genworth’s online tool.
Help with car and personal loan payments
Those dealing with car or personal loan payments should also talk to your bank. CIBC and RBC announced that it would help their Fort McMurray and Lac la Biche clients with “special financial considerations and assistance, including short-term payment deferrals on personal loans, home insurance, auto insurance and credit cards.”
Small business and commercial clients can also seek out help from their banks. Just go in and talk to a branch representative.
Step 4: Prepare for the claims process
Once you’ve called your insurance provider, started collecting your day-to-day living receipts and talked to your bank, the next step is to turn your attention to the insurance claim process.
Fort McMurray fire chief, Darby Allen, is still in the process of creating a preliminary re-entry plan, but as of mid-May there’s was still no firm re-entry date. As such, Premier Rachel Notley warns residents it could be some time before anyone is allowed to return. Once you are allowed to return the first task is to assess the damage done, as best you can. While the insurance company will still send out their own adjuster, to record and assess your claim, now is good time to take photos or record video of the damage. You can use this photograph documentation to support your claim and document your loss.
(Keep in mind that home insurance will cover not only damage caused by fire, but also smoke damage and damage caused by wind, among other perils. To find out exactly what’s covered, read our insurance guide or talk to your insurance provider.)
Another good option, even before you return home to assess the damage, is to imagine each room in your home and then list everything you see in that room. Do this exercise room by room, keeping a list of all items you see in your mind’s eye. This list can also be added to your claim, to help the adjuster determine the final cost of your loss.
Don’t make repairs until you’re given the thumbs up
Unless your insurance provider has specifically said you can, don’t move, disturb, clean or repairs any part of your property. Your insurance adjuster must first assess the damage, as is, before you can start the clean-up process. Keep in constant communication about when you can start the clean up and rebuilding process and don’t forget to ask if they offer discounts if you opt to pitch in and clean up the debris. Some insurance companies will credit homeowners who clean up their own sites during catastrophic events.
Finally, steel yourself for the touch talk with your insurance adjuster. It’s not that they’ll ask you difficult questions, but that person may ask you to describe what happened, in detail. This can be very emotional for some people, as it can prompt you to relive the experience. Just know that this is not meant to cause you distress, but it is an important part of the adjuster’s job, since your first-person account of what happened may used to help determine your final insurance settlement.
While all this work may be emotionally and physically exhausting, keep in mind that by being prepared and proactive, your claim will be much easier to handle, both for you and your adjuster (who will be overwhelmed by the sheer number and the vast amount of loss from these wildfires). In the end, it’s about how quickly you get the insurance money you deserve.
Step 5: Settle your claim
At some point, your insurance adjuster will offer you a settlement—the financial compensation that will be used to compensate your loss. For some, this may be a cash settlement—a lump sum that must be used to settle debts and start again. For most, it will mean rebuilding your damaged or destroyed home. (For tips on how to determine if your settlement is fair, read our previous post.)
Pay your deductible
During this process, you may notice a deduction from the final sum that was offered by your insurance company as compensation for your loss. This reduction—usually $500, $1,000, or more—is your deductible. Every insurance policy comes with a deductible—the out-of-pocket portion you pay for any claim you make.
Keep in mind, though, that some insurance companies will waive your need to pay this out-of-pocket portion of the claim—eliminating this deduction from your final settlement. Typically, this is done when your claim exceeds a certain pre-set limit established by the company. Talk to your provider to see if you qualify. You may also notice that your out-of-pocket portion is smaller than you were anticipating. This could be a result of a “disappearing deductible”—an insurance company formula hat eventually decreases the amount you pay, until the deductible disappears completely.
Step 6: How long will it take?
Now, the big question: How long will it take for the insurance provider to settle my claim? This really does depend on how severe and complex your claim is, and this is further compounded by the sheer volume of claims being filed at this time in the Fort McMurray area. While insurance providers are working hard to process every claim quickly and efficiently, keep in mind that it will take time. Stay in touch with your insurance provider to find out their ongoing efforts to try and help ease the burden of waiting for your claim to be settled.
Also, be aware that the coverage you receive will be different than the coverage your father received, or your neighbour, or your friend. That’s because home insurance policies can differ dramatically based on company, type of coverage, age of the home, the type of structure, among a number of other factors.
Pets need help, too
Of course, not everything is about emergency cash, living expenses and home insurance claims. Many displaced Wood Buffalo region residents are also grappling with various concerns while struggling to return to daily routines. For those concerned about pets, take heart. Starting May 7, emergency responders started to identify and care for pets that were left behind. Pets are being handled by trained animal handlers and will receive veterinary care. If you were separated from your pet and worried that your critter still needs to be rescued, fill out the official online emergency pet rescue request to allow a field team to respond.
If you want more information, or you want to help
Anyone with concerns or questions can always contact the Red Cross at their toll-free number: 1-888-350-6070
While donations of clothes and in-kind goods are appreciated, many aid agencies are asking Canadians who wish to help with the relief efforts to donate cash. Your cash donations go towards food, clothing, shelter and other necessities. You can make a donation, in-person, at any Red Cross office or text REDCROSS to 30333 to make a $5 donation.
The Alberta and federal governments is matching donations made to the Red Cross. And remember, Rogers is waiving the cost of calls and texts to Fort McMurray to better connect customers with loved ones affected.
Anyone concerned about possible fraudulent online donation pages can contact the Red Cross directly.