As victims of Superstorm Sandy know well, recovering from a major disaster can require individuals and businesses to complete many tedious but important tasks. They include preparing insurance claims for damaged properties and replacing credit cards and other lost or ruined personal documents.
To ease the process, the New Jersey Society of Certified Public Accountants has created a comprehensive “disaster-recovery guide” that victims can turn to for key information and suggestions.
For example, the guide — which is available free online — provides detailed instructions to help victims report losses to insurance companies and offers tips on how best to avoid price gouging by businesses and other types of scams that often are targeted at disaster victims.
First drafted by the Roseland-based CPA organization in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, an updated version of the guide has been issued in time for the seventh anniversary of Superstorm Sandy’s landfall in New Jersey on Oct. 29, 2012. But the information in the guide is useful for the aftermath of any major event such as a fire or flood that causes significant property damage or loss.
“When a disaster strikes, it’s important to know where you should turn for information, what steps to follow to lessen the blow and what practical matters need to be taken care of,” said Ralph Albert Thomas, the society’s chief executive and executive director.
Lessons from Sandy
Superstorm Sandy delivered a direct hit to New Jersey, bringing 80-mile-per-hour winds and a massive storm surge to counties at the Jersey Shore and parts of northern New Jersey. In its aftermath, nearly 350,000 homes were damaged or outright destroyed, according to official estimates, and the storm caused more than $35 billion worth of damage after making landfall near Atlantic City.
According to the disaster-recovery guide, property owners should initially only make emergency repairs that prevent further damage from occurring following a disaster.
Property owners should also immediately contact their insurance companies and begin documenting damage caused to things like homes and cars, including by taking photos, the guide advises. It also includes instructions for property owners who want to contest any settlement they are offered by an insurance company, including how to file an appeal with the state Department of Banking and Insurance. (In 2015, NJ Spotlight asked Sandy victims about their experiences with insurance companies in the wake of the storm, and only a handful expressed satisfaction.)
The CPA group also recommends contacting a certified public accountant to get help understanding all the financial and tax implications of the disaster. For example, New Jersey tax rules don’t allow for damages to be itemized as a deduction or claimed as a loss on income tax returns. But the Department of Treasury may relax filing deadlines for certain disaster victims, such as in 2017 after hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
The Internal Revenue Service allows certain damages to be claimed on federal tax forms, including in areas that receive a presidential disaster declaration.
“Before amending a tax return, take the time to determine whether it is financially wiser to deduct the losses from your previous year’s or current year’s tax return,” according to the disaster guide.
Personal documents often are damaged or lost during a disaster, and the guide provides a rundown of exactly where to turn to begin replacing things like passports, birth certificates, marriage licenses, car titles and Social Security cards. It also has instructions on what to do if credit cards and ATM cards are lost or damaged in a disaster.
Lastly, the guide includes tips that property owners can follow to guard against things like price gouging or loan scams that require the payment of an upfront fee. It includes best practices for those who wish to donate to charities seeking to assist victims following a disaster. For example, most municipalities require anyone going door-to-door seeking donations for charities and other causes to first register with the local police department.
“For peace of mind, donate directly to the charity of your choice,” suggests the guide. “Frequently, the door-to-door solicitors are only in town long enough to take advantage of the situation.”