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'I am living in a nightmare everyday': What homeowners need to know as climate change threatens properties

More than a month after Hurricane Ida flooded her basement, Jessica Rose and her three children are still homeless.

The 35-year-old mom from Haverstraw, New York, has been moving from motel to motel, looking for cheaper and cheaper deals -- and in the process, moving farther and farther away from her children’s school.

The morning after the storm, when the local fire department arrived to see whether they could help pump some of the water out of her basement, they found that the water levels were dangerously close to the electrical panel and posed a fire hazard. The town, 42 miles north of New York City, immediately declared the dwelling unsafe and sealed off the property.

Rose, who doesn’t have any kind of insurance, says she’s at the end of her rope.

“I have to pay out of pocket for everything,” she says. “I’ve run out of money. It's horrible”

She hasn’t yet heard from the Federal Emergency Management Agency on the assistance she might be eligible for. 

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Weather-related disasters, fueled by climate change, have increased fivefold in the past 50 years, according to a recent report by the World Meteorological Organization.

Since 1980, the U.S. has experienced 298 weather and climate disasters in which overall costs reached or exceeded $1 billion. The total cost of these events exceeds $1.975 trillion, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information, and the frequency and cost of those disasters has accelerated 

While standard homeowners’ policies cover a range of disasters, from tornadoes to lightning strikes to winter storm damage, they do not cover floods, earthquakes, maintenance damage and sewer backup, experts say.

“Earthquake and flood insurance are often overlooked types of policies that can leave families without any financial way to recover or rebuild,” says Leslie Chapman-Henderson, CEO of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, an advocacy group that works to strengthen homes from natural and human-made disasters. “In the worst cases, families lose their homes altogether, so buying an earthquake or flood policy is the most effective protection.”

When it comes to dealing with sudden, weather-related damage to their homes, even the most experienced professionals can find themselves out of their depth.

Tom Dolfay, CEO of Property Damage Appraisers, a company that assesses disaster-related damages for major insurance companies across the U.S., says he felt underprepared when the Texas winter storm this year caused massive damage to his home in Dallas.

In February, Dolfay came home from work to find 2 inches of water in his driveway.

“We had had 20-degree weather for a while, so I thought my sprinkler system had burst,” Dolfay says.

As he walked into his house, he realized two tanks of water heaters had burst due to frozen pipes, a ceiling had collapsed – and he was standing in 6 inches of water.

“Even as a CEO of a company with all these resources, I was like, ‘Wow, what do I do?’'" he says. “I knew enough to stop the water. So I went outside and shut it off.”

His insurance agent asked him to contact the insurance hotline.

After going through a “litany of things” on the hotline, Dolfay felt he wasn’t getting anywhere. After “pushing” his insurance agent, Dolfay says he got the names of two restoration companies.

Restoration companies assess the extent of the damage and determine the best course of action following significant damage from floods, fires, and other catastrophic events. They work with insurance companies and can assist in protecting the home from further damage.

“Had I not been in the industry, I would not have even considered pushing that guy,” he says. “I would have been at the mercy of the insurance companies.”

Dolfay also got two of his colleagues to help him.

One read his policy and determined that Dolfay’s insurance allowed for “replacement cost” as opposed to “actual cash value.”

Replacement cost pays for the full amount needed to replace an item, whereas actual cash value insurance estimates depreciation, or the loss of value over time, and only pays the difference.

A homeowner with actual cash value insurance who needs to replace floors, walls, windows, appliances, roof, or lighting following a major event, could end up spending a substantial amount of money trying to rebuild their house. The actual cash value option could work better for items such as fine jewelry and art that can gain value over time.

Another of Dolfay’s colleagues was able to assess his damage and give him an estimate of what it would cost to repair his home.

“Most people aren’t going to have that luxury,” he says.

His advice? Build connections with local restoration companies as soon as you buy a home so that when disaster strikes, you know whom to call. You might also get a better idea of what the repairs could actually cost if the insurance company tries to lowball you. 

“Have an inventory of what’s in your house," he says. "Know the make, model and brand of your major appliances and valuable items. Take pictures of everything (before disaster strikes) when you are calm, cool and collected, and email them to yourself so you can access them from anywhere."

Chapman-Henderson, of FLASH, suggests contacting more than one company for quotes and paying attention to coverage limitations and special riders a homeowner may need to cover high-value items like jewelry or heirlooms.

“Ask about the coverage limits, deductibles, and exclusions for each disaster risk common in your area,” she says.

Last month, FLASH launched the Buyer's Guide to Resilient Homes, a free tool  that provides a framework for homebuyers, homeowners and even renters to see how they can protect their homes against these types of perils. 

It includes disaster-preparedness checklists for people to include in their home search process, including questions people can ask their realtor and things homeowners can do to make their homes disaster-resilient.

One such tip includes investing $500 into a simple sealing agent that can protect up to 95% of water entry during a hurricane.

"Research from the insurance industry tells us that an unsealed roof deck can allow as much as 750 gallons of water, or nine bathtubs, per minute to enter through unprotected deck seams," Chapman-Henderson says.

To save money, she also suggests looking for opportunities for discounts and credits tied to modern building codes, flood vents, hurricane shutters, security systems, smoke alarms, water leak detection systems, a hail- or wind-resistant roof, or other protective devices.

Rose, whose three children, ages 15, 8 and 7, have been holed up in a tiny motel room for than a month, are growing more frustrated by the day, she says. 

"All their toys and winter clothes are ruined. I can’t make them home-cooked meals,” she says. “I don't know how I'm going to afford the next $500 for weekly rent. I have been spending so much money on gas trying to get the kids to school.”

Although she has some family in the area, no one has been able to help financially. Her mother, who lives in a small apartment in New Jersey, has lent a hand, taking care of the children when she can. Her mother-in-law is sick with emphysema. 

Meanwhile, her husband has been behind bars for the past two months for a "minor offense," she says.

Out of desperation, her niece set up a GoFundMe page for the family with a goal of raising $50,000. So far, it has raised only $300.

If she could do everything all over again, the first thing she would do is get her home and flood insurance, she says. 

“Everyday, I wake up wishing for some normalcy,” she says. “I’m regretting leaving everything to chance, and now I am living in a nightmare everyday.”

Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy is the housing and economy reporter for USA TODAY. Follow her on Twitter @SwapnaVenugopal