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If a tornado damages your car, does auto insurance pay?

The massive tornado that tore through Joplin, Mo., in May 2011 was horrific. At last count, 141 people were killed. Joplin residents routinely took stock of their families and homes first, then checked their vehicles for damage – and wondered whether the damage was insured.

For someone in Joplin (or anyone else) who has comprehensive coverage on an auto insurance policy, damage to a vehicle is covered under the catastrophic storms portion of the policy, says Elizabeth Stelzer, a spokeswoman for Nationwide Insurance.

auto insurance tornado

In nearly every state, including Missouri, liability coverage is mandatory for vehicles. Collision and comprehensive coverage are optional. Comprehensive coverage covers weather-related damage, and experts say it's almost a necessary, not a luxury, in regions where tornadoes are common. According to the Insurance Information Institute, three-fourths of all auto insurance policies include comprehensive coverage.

Loretta Worters, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute, says: “Comprehensive coverage is not mandatory. However, if you live in an area where severe weather is common, it may be a wise investment.”

If your car is financed or leased, the bank or other company that owns the car probably will require that you carry comprehensive coverage.

Beyond checking to see whether your auto insurance policy includes comprehensive coverage, what steps should you take if your vehicle is damaged in a tornado? Here are five things to keep in mind:

1. File quickly. Nationwide’s Stelzer advises filing a claim as soon as possible to speed up the process of getting a check in your hand. “Make sure you’re safe first, and then assess the damage,” she advises. “It’s not a problem if you wait, but you’re better off filing right away.”

2. Be patient. You may not reach a claims representative on the first try, but the auto insurance companies say they’ll get to everybody who has a claim -- or even a question about a claim. In the wake of the recent wave of tornadoes, "we’re doing everything we can to lighten the burden on our policyholders," says Nancy Pierce, GEICO’s vice president of claims. "We have added staff to make sure all claims are handled quickly so that we can get our policyholders back on the road as soon as possible."

3. Even if you hit something while scrambling to safety, chances are you’re covered. Auto insurance companies say that if you get in an accident while avoiding a tornado, you’re covered under the optional collision portion of your policy. Mark Carrasquillo, an auto insurance agent with E.G. Bowman in New York, adds that comprehensive coverage applies to “external” tornado damage, such as your car being hit by a tree or by hail.

4. It’s OK to make temporary repairs to your vehicle, but not permanent ones. According to the Missouri Department of Insurance, temporary damage – like a hole in the roof or a broken car window -- should be covered. But don’t make permanent repairs until your insurance company has checked out your vehicle. Getting your car fixed beforehand could get your claim denied.

5. Figure out what's not covered. Any personal possessions in your car that are damaged or ruined are typically not covered under comprehensive auto insurance, although such items may be covered by your homeowner's or renter's insurance.

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