True Stories: What Hurricane Sandy Taught Me About Money

Alden Wicker
Posted

After Sandy, a building in Manhattan missing its facade.

We apologize for forgetting to put “giant hurricane at high tide with storm surge” in our list of reasons you need an emergency fund. Our bad.

This week, as Sandy hit the East Coast hard, hundreds of thousands of people learned firsthand what it’s like to live through a natural disaster, financially and emotionally. We sincerely hope, that like us at the LearnVest office, you emerged from the storm unscathed.

But with inclement weather seemingly on the rise—and politicians strangely mum about climate change—we not only walk you through the three steps you need to take to prepare before disaster strikes, we’ve got true tales from two survivors who relate the most poignant money lesson Sandy taught them.

Read and learn …

“Always read the fine print.” – Gail Lowenstein

 

My husband and I live on Long Island, which was really hard-hit by tropical storm Sandy.

I got home around 4:30 p.m., and within a half hour of being home, a tree fell on a part of the house that, luckily, we’re not using; it used to be my son’s room, but he’s grown up and has moved out. The first thing I heard was the house alarm going off. Luckily, my husband was home too, or I would have been more scared.

Basically, we looked up at the sky and saw a tree coming straight toward us.

It seemed like slow motion, and my husband and I watched in awe and fascination as it happened—you never think something like this is going to happen to you.

Suddenly, the tree was in middle of the room, and the bathroom next to my son’s room had caved in, too. Now it was raining in our house—just water pouring in. We went and got every garbage pail we could find and put it under where the rain was falling. And of course we had no power … no one did, so we had to do all of this in the dark.

We tried to just take it in stride. In fact, I actually feel lucky, for a few different reasons: No one was hurt, we were able to sleep in our bedroom that night, and I feel, in a spiritual way, that we somehow took the fall for our son. The tree fell on what had been his room. He lives in Long Island, too, not far from us, and he’s working and going to school. If his house were impacted, instead, it would have been a tremendous strain on him.

The damage from the storm—physically and financially—was significant. That wasn’t the only tree that fell, there were eight others from our property down. I called our handyman and said: “Could you somehow get a tarp up so we don’t drown the house?”

He said, “The wind is blowing so hard, I’ll get blown off the roof.” So we kept emptying the pails as they filled up with water. By then, the water damage had extended into the next room.

Hopefully insurance will pay for a lot of this. We do have homeowner’s insurance, and when I called the insurance company, I realized we’d had a real stroke of luck: Because the storm had been downgraded to a tropical storm, our deductible was only $2,500. If it had been classified as an actual hurricane, it would have been $25,000.

RELATED: How Much Home Insurance Is Enough?

Removing the tree on our house alone is going to cost $17,000, plus another $10,000 for the additional ones that fell on our property. I’ll also need a new roof on that part of the house. All that compared to the few hundred dollars a month we pay for the coverage.

Like I said, you never think it’s going to happen to you, so I don’t know that you can exactly plan for these things—but I would suggest reading the fine print in your policies.  In my case, I just followed what the insurance company told me to do, and luckily, this time, it worked out.

“I wish I had saved a full emergency fund—because this is one.” – Amanda Veinott

 

When I graduated from college two and a half years ago, I had $50,000 in student loans. I moved home with my family in South Plainfield, New Jersey, and created a spreadsheet that I taped to the wall with a timeline for when I would pay off my $25,000 in federal loans. My goal was October 2012.

I steadily chipped away at them, and I sent in my final payment on October 22nd for $1,200. It felt fantastic! But it was at the expense of my emergency fund, which only had $3,500 in it to begin with. I took $1,000 out of it to pay off the loan, justifying it by telling myself I’m fortunate I don’t have a large chunk of my income going to rent, so I’d be OK without it. Now I’m kicking myself in the butt.

When Hurricane Sandy was bearing down on us, we anticipated being without power for at least 72 hours, but I didn’t anticipate the full extent of the damage. I was definitely nervous during the storm. With 85-mile-per-hour wind gusts, the house was shaking. Trees and power lines were coming down all through our neighborhood.

After the hurricane, I found out that NJ Transit to Manhattan is down from flooding, which means I have no way to get to my job. Because I just transitioned to PTOC (part time on call) two days before the storm hit, I’m feeling a little lost right now. I didn’t make the move expecting something like this to happen! Now I don’t get paid when I don’t work.

We and other people in our neighborhood have started siphoning gas from our cars to fuel our generators, and all the gas stations in this area are either out of gas or they don’t have electricity to pump it, and the ones that are open have a mile to two-mile lines. So I can’t drive into the city either. They don’t even know when the train will be back up–it will take at least a week.

And now I have just $2,500 in my savings account. I am beginning to think I shouldn’t have worried so much about paying off my loans and instead saved six months of my living expenses so I’d have a true emergency fund. This is one—it just didn’t figure into my plans.

Just last month, when I went to LearnVest LIVE, Alexa introduced Becca Wildsmith, whose emergency fund allowed her to deal with getting a cancer diagnosis. When this happened to me, just weeks later, I thought of her, because this hurricane drove home that you really don’t ever know what to expect.

Image Credit: Flickr.com/kate.gardiner

Love reading other people’s financial tales? Check out more great LearnVest-exclusive personal stories.

  • Jill

    Amanda your point about creating an emergency fund before paying off loans struck a nerve with me. I am in college and I started paying some of my loans, I plan on moving back home while I get my grad degree and will use all my money on paying for grad school and loans. Since one of the rules of financial planning is to pay off debt (with high interest rates like loans) first, many of us focus solely on that, but experiences like Hurricane Sandy, cancer and other emergencies are why we need to have emergency funds.

    • Amanda Veinott

      Hi Jill! While I have been paying off my loans over
      the past 2.5 years instead of stocking up money in my emergency fund, I felt a bit vulnerable but I would always justify it by saying it was more important not to rack up interest on my loans and to pay down my principal. While I still believe that is important, Sandy has certainly put things into perspective for me. If I were to have done it again, I would have put more money every month into an emergency fund and would not have tapped into it to pay off my final federal loan payment.

      • Ami

        Amanda, thank you so much for sharing your story with the rest of us.  Like Jill, your story also struck a nerve with me.  I desperately want to pay down the principal to avoid interest fees, but in the wake of something like Sandy, which I never thought would be as devastating as it was, I’m reconsidering my own savings plan. 

  • EL

    An emergency fund and an firm understanding of your insurance is absolutely necessary as I learned the hard way on 8/29/12 when my home flooded in Hurricane Isaac. I had flood insurance and homeowners insurance. I even had a specific Hurricane Policy under my homeowners which included loss of use. So when my home flooded and we were forced to move out, I thought everything would be okay.

    Well, turns out because the damage was from flooding (not wind, hail or rain from the Hurricane) my homeowners policy did not cover my loss of use and flood insurance, which is federally regulated, doesn’t include loss of use either. FEMA’s “rental assistance” is a joke. You get $800 a month (not automatically either, you have to apply each month) and you are on your own for all deposits, moving expenses, etc.) Considering I still had to pay my mortgage, utilities, and the new storage unit, I couldn’t afford the additional apartment expenses. FEMA sent me to the SBA for a loan which I didn’t qualify for and I was essentially left on my own to figure out how to pay for the storm expenses and where I was going to live for the next six months. We have been out of our house for two months now and living with family. The insurance process took 56 days – that meant nearly two months before I got a dime. We had an enormous amount of out of pocket expenses and not having an emergency fund really affected us. We were lucky that we were both able to return to our full time jobs right away and not have a lapse in income.

    It’s been a long frustrating road and I really feel for the people in Sandy because I know what they are going through. We are projected to be able to move back into our house in February and I am already working on re-prioritizing my finances to get an emergency fund in place. It was always something I knew I needed and wanted, but at 30 years old, I was focusing on paying off my debt and not on saving as I should have been. This experience has really opened my eyes to the importance of saving and having that fund in place should I need it. In a catastrophe like this, you can only depend on yourself and it is important to be informed and prepared.

    To Sandy victims, you have lots of friends in Louisiana who support you and understand the difficulties you are facing. Hang in there! 

  • Kristin

    Amanda’s point really struck home. I could have been in the same boat as you. Fortunately I’m on the West Coast, which helps some, but I just depleted my emergency fund to pay off the very last of my debt. My mindset being it’ll be okay it’s only temporary. I realize now I need to really take a hard focus on building that back up. I really appreciate your insight. 

  • Casggp

    That is such a hard decision, debt. vs. emergency fund.  It recently came up in a discussion with my friend who asked about my student loans.  I told him that I could pay it off with my savings, but I won’t.  For some reason, I just feel safer knowing that I have access to those funds in any type of emergency.  The same reason why I keep a certain amount of $$$ in cash on hand as well.  It could all be put towards something else, but I have a better peace of mind knowing that I have money on hand  and within reach.  And I do pay extra towards my student loans every month.