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Your next steps after Hurricane Michael

Destroyed house and structuresImage: Destroyed house and structures
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Hurricane Michael ripped through the American southeast this week, destroying homes in Florida and Georgia as it made its way up the coast toward the Carolinas.

The hurricane, a Category 4 storm when it made landfall Wednesday near Mexico Beach, Fla., with winds reaching 155 miles per hour, is the strongest hurricane the Florida panhandle has seen in more than a century.

More than 375,000 people were ordered to evacuate. But not everyone made it out in time.

At least two people were killed by the storm. And survivors are now left picking up the pieces. Early estimates suggest Hurricane Michael is leaving behind billions of dollars’ worth of damage — mostly to residential properties.

Your next steps

Stay safe

Many people may feel overwhelmed by the damage around them. But your first priority should be staying safe. Relief organizations like the American Red Cross are setting up shelters for those whose homes were destroyed. You can learn more about assistance from the American Red Cross here.

Once you’re safe, wait until the government has lifted the evacuation order for your area before you make your way back home to assess the damage.

Start the claims process

In the meantime, call your insurance company to let them know your home (or car) was damaged in the storm, and tell them you want to start a claim. That will get the ball rolling as you prepare for the rebuilding process.

When it’s safe to return home, take pictures and video of the damage and send them to your insurance company.

Give your creditors a heads up

Natural disasters can be financially draining. If you think you might miss a payment — whether it’s for your mortgage, car or credit cards — reach out to your creditors and let them know. They might be willing to reduce or pause your payments as you recover from Hurricane Michael.

Seek help

You can also apply for assistance from the federal government if you need help feeding your family or rebuilding. For more information, reach out to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, which has set up a special page to provide more information and resources for those affected by Hurricane Michael.

Government help

The governors of Florida, Georgia, Alabama and North Carolina all declared state emergencies in advance of Hurricane Michael, triggering requests for federal assistance.

President Trump approved the emergency declarations in Florida and Georgia on Oct. 11, allowing FEMA to deploy resources to supplement local relief efforts in affected areas.

FEMA can help with disaster housing for people who lost their homes, and by lending a hand with needs not covered by insurance. The organization also helps communities rebuild by removing debris and repairing storm-damaged public buildings, roads and bridges.

In addition, the IRS may help people who were affected by Hurricane Michael by giving them additional time to file their tax returns and offering faster refunds when they do file. In many cases, people can also claim losses to their homes and vehicles on their tax returns.

Help from relief organizations

Along with FEMA, many non-profit relief organizations are deploying resources to help those affected by Hurricane Michael.

The American Red Cross sent 500 trained disaster workers along with many more volunteers to the region. They set up evacuation centers that can temporarily house up to 15,000 people seeking shelter. The evacuation centers have cots, blankets and food.

For those who can’t go home after the storm passes, the evacuation centers will serve as emergency shelters, where people can stay while they get back on their feet.

Direct Relief is sending emergency medical packs to nearby facilities, each of which can treat 100 patients for trauma injuries or chronic illnesses like diabetes or high blood pressure for about 3 days.

Samaritan’s Purse is sending equipment to the region, and coordinating volunteer efforts with local churches.

The Humane Society is also coordinating pet rescue efforts.

How you can help

Even if Hurricane Michael didn’t impact you personally, you can still help. The Red Cross is asking for $10 donations and blood donations.

Your contributions can help legit relief organizations in a big way — but be careful: Unfortunately, disasters like Michael also create the opportunity for scam artists to take your money. We recommend you vet charities you’re not familiar with at a website like Charity Navigator to make sure they check out.

You can also reach out to one of the relief organizations we’ve mentioned to ask about volunteer opportunities.

About the author: Tim Devaney is a personal finance writer and credit card expert at Credit Karma. He’s a longtime journalist who prides himself on being a good storyteller who can explain complex information in an easily digestible wa… Read more.