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Like a few hundred thousand other San Diegans, I spent Sunday night in a grocery store parking lot with my neighbors, and Monday night in a hotel room after being ordered to leave my home because of the encroaching wildfires. I’m one of the lucky ones. Unlike about 1,500 other San Diego County residents, I got to take my wife and kids back to a home that, except for ash and soot, and a bit of wind damage, was exactly as we rushed out of it 36 hours earlier.

As I write, the President of the United States is flying over San Diego County, no doubt viewing the black squares on the ground that use to be homes. He has also probably seen the uncontrolled fires that continue to toward other vulnerable neighborhoods.

Many in the media have felt compelled to compare what has happened here to New Orleans after Katrina, but it’s not a fair comparison. Katrina was far more devastating. Early estimates place the total damage of the wildfires in the range of $1 billion, while Katrina insurance losses far exceed $40 billion. In addition, during Katrina the very infrastructure of the community was destroyed, here in San Diego most major roads are open, there is power and water available to nearly the entire county, and most public services are being provided.

This is not to say it won’t be a Katrina-like experience for those who have lost homes in these fires. Affected homeowners will soon begin a journey down the long road of insurance claims as adjusters decided what’s covered and what’s not, and as homeowners decide how they can rebuild their homes as quickly as possible with the money available. But all the early indications are that insurance companies are going to be watched very closely as these property damage claims are adjusted.

Here are some helpful suggestions from the California Department of Insurance, who has many agents on the scene.

After a loss has occurred:

Contact your insurance company immediately to report your loss. Follow the instructions given to you by claims personnel. Ask questions if you do not understand your adjuster’s instructions. From the beginning, keep a log of the names of the people you speak with along with dates, times, and a summary of the pertinent points of each conversation.

Act prudently to prevent further loss to your property. Insurance policies may not cover ensuing damage if you have not taken reasonable steps to protect against subsequent property damage.

Take pictures documenting damages.

Do not rush into repairs or rebuilding without first considering all your alternatives.

Ask your insurance agent or company representative to help you with your claim, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Your insurer provides an adjuster at no charge to you. If you decide to work directly with your insurer, you still have the right to hire a third-party professional (e.g., public adjuster or lawyer) to help you.

If you hire a public adjuster or attorney to help you with a claim, be certain that the adjuster is licensed and that the lawyer is in good standing. Public adjusters and lawyers will usually require a percentage of the claim settlement for their services. It is important that you understand what services are being provided and the fees that will be charged. Ask your friends, relatives, or business associates for the names of well-regarded professionals in your communit

To verify a public adjuster’s license, call the CDI (California Department of Insurance).

To learn about attorneys and standards for lawyer-client fees, or to file a complaint against an attorney, contact the California State Bar at 800-843-9053.

Do not repair or replace your loss without first getting instructions from your adjuster, since your insurer’s visual inspection of your loss may be necessary before repairs begin.

Do not throw away damaged property until your adjuster advises you it is all right to do so.

It bears repeating that anyone making an insurance claim must not be afraid to ask questions. It is imporant that you understand the process as it unfolds. Also, as nice and sincere as your insurance adjuster might be, do not assume that he/she has your best interests at heart. Finally, if you believe strongly about an aspect of your claim, be prepared to fight for it. This is, after all, your life and your property!

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