Consumer Tips for Natural Disasters 2013

Consumer Tips for Natural Disasters

Disasters like tornados and wildfires can strike quickly and without warning, while others such as hurricanes can be tracked for days. Disasters can force you to evacuate your home, workplace, school or even city. In these times, it’s difficult to focus on the various tasks that need to be dealt with.   The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services have put together some quick tips to help aid consumers in making the right decision when disaster strikes.

SAFETY

Always keep at least three days of non-perishable food for the entire family on hand at all times.

Avoid all exposure of carbon monoxide (CO), an odorless, colorless gas that can cause sudden illness and death if you breathe it.  Never use generators, pressure washers, grills, camp stoves or other gasoline, propane, natural gas or charcoal-burning devices inside your home, basement, garage or camper—or even outside near an open window, door or vent.   CO from these sources can build up in your home, garage or camper and fatally poison the people and animals inside.  Seek prompt medical attention if you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning, some symptoms include feeling dizzy, light-headed, or nauseated.

 Be aware of new safety problems created by the disaster. Watch for washed out roads, damaged trees, contaminated water, gas leaks, broken glass, compromised electrical wiring and slippery floors.

Inform local authorities about health and safety issues, including chemical spills, downed trees and power lines, washed out roads, smoldering insulation and dead animals.

PRICE GAUGING

In the wake of a natural disaster, essential commodities (such as fuel, food, ice, generators,   lanterns, lumber, lodging, etc.) may be in short supply. Charging exorbitant or excessive prices for these and other necessities following a declared state of emergency is not only unethical, it’s illegal.  Under Sections 501.160 and 501.205 Florida Statutes, it is illegal to charge unconscionable prices for goods or services following a declared state of emergency. 

Report price gouging by calling the Florida Attorney General’s Office at 1-866-966-7226.

HOME REPAIR

Know your contractor. A frequent problem after a disaster is “fly-by-night” contractors who take deposits before starting work or final payments before finishing.  Ask for a list of recent customers and call them for references.

Get at least three estimates. Be certain the estimates are itemized and for the same work and any variations should be noted.

Be cautious of repair businesses or individuals who solicit door-to-door, arrive in unmarked vehicles, have a post office box or temporary address, claim they are from another county or state and are in the area solely to help disaster victims or offer to work for you only if you secure the necessary permits.

Obtain information about theFlorida’s Construction Lien Law by calling the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation at (850) 487-1395. It is very important that you understand how this law works to ensure your home is protected from liability or that you don’t pay twice for the same services.

Check the contractor’s address, license and complaint history by contacting the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation at (850) 487-1395 or on their website at www.myfloridalicense.com.

 Have a written contract for your repairs and understand it thoroughly before you sign.  The contract should specify that the contractor is to obtain all permits or variances, carries full insurance on all employees and “subcontractors,” releases you from all liens, and provides for a proper clean up.

Some home improvement or repair contracts may be canceled without penalty or obligation by midnight of the third business day after signing, such as those signed at a place other than the seller’s normal place of business, all door-to-door agreements (except for emergency home repairs) and those paid on an installment basis.

LANDLORD TENANT LAW

If the premises are damaged or destroyed other than by the wrongful or negligent acts of the tenant so that the enjoyment of the premises is substantially impaired, the tenant may terminate the rental agreement and immediately vacate the premises. The tenant may vacate the part of the premises rendered unusable by the casualty, in which case the tenant’s liability for rent shall be reduced by the fair rental value of that part of the premises damaged or destroyed.

When you move out, the landlord must either return your deposit (plus interest, if applicable) within 15 days of termination of the lease if the landlord does not intend to impose a claim upon the security deposit; or justify in writing by certified mail, to the tenant’s last known mailing address within 30 days upon termination of a lease, as to why they are keeping a portion of, or all of the deposit. If the notice is not sent as required within the 30 day period, the landlord forfeits his/her right to impose a claim upon the deposit, unless you fail to give proper notice prior to vacating.   If you object to the claim, you may take the matter to small claims court.

Take pictures of the home, inside and out, showing the damage and keep them for your records. The pictures will be important should you have to defend yourself in court on an eviction procedure, or if the landlord refuses to return your deposit because you terminated your rental agreement early because of damage to the home.

If, due to a disaster, the landlord refuses to renew your lease, terminates your month-to-month rental agreement or increases your rent substantially, you can seek a court decision on whether the rental agreement or any part of it is unconscionable or if the landlord is acting in a retaliatory manner.

PET SAFETY

Before a disaster strikes, take several pictures of all the animals in your household and keep these pictures with your important insurance papers.  Be sure to include in the pictures any distinguishing marks. These pictures can help reunite you with a lost pet.

Have at least a minimum two week supply of pet food and water on hand at all times. Store the dry food in air tight/waterproof containers.

Your pets and livestock should have a collar, with tags; or a permanent ID such as a microchip implant or tattoo.  This will increase your chances of reuniting you with your pets if you become separated.

Start a buddy system with someone in your neighborhood so that they will check on your animals during disaster in case you aren’t home. Agree to do the same for them.

Check for pet friendly shelters in the area that you plan to evacuate, to ensure that you and your pet can stay together.  Planning ahead could save your pet’s life!  If you evacuate with pets, be sure to bring their vaccination records, medications and cleaning supplies.

 HELPING OTHERS

Check with local organizations or listen to local news reports for information about where volunteers are needed.  Remember until volunteers are specifically requested, stay away from disaster areas, otherwise you may be more harm than good.

Bring your own food, water and emergency supplies to a disaster area if you are needed there. This is especially important in cases where a large area has been affected and emergency items are in short supply.

Do not drop off food, clothing or any other item to a government agency or disaster relief organization unless a particular item has been requested. Normally, these organizations do not have the resources to sort through the donated items.

Donate a quantity of a given item or class of items (such as nonperishable food) rather than a mix of different things.  That will make it easier for the relief personnel to distribute your donation.

GIVING TO CHARITY

Beware of people soliciting contributions on behalf of victims of a natural disaster. Ask the name of the organization they represent and their State ofFloridaregistration number.  Do not judge an organization solely on a name that sounds impressive. Many organizations use names similar to well-known charities and organizations.

Beware of pressure tactics. Reputable organizations won’t pressure you to give today; they will gladly accept your gift at a future date.

Not all organizations soliciting are true charities eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions.  Ask if donations are tax deductible.  Verify the information with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services at 1-800-HELP-FLA (435-7352) or 850-410-3800 if calling from outside ofFlorida.

Never give cash.  Contribute by check payable to the organization, never to an individual’s name.

Charitable solicitation organizations must register with the state. To check on a group’s registration or complaint history, call the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services at 1-800-HELP-FLA (435-7352). You can also view our online Gift Givers’ Guide for up-to-date charitable organizations financial information.

SEEKING ASSISTANCE

Throughout the recovery period, it is important to monitor local radio or television reports and other media sources for information about where to get emergency housing, food, first aid, clothing and financial assistance.   Here are some important numbers that may help you during times of need:

State of Florida Emergency Management Information 24-hour hotline (FEIL)
1-800-342-3557 www.floridadisaster.org

Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Hotline
(including price gouging complaints)
1-800-HELP-FLA (1-800-435-7352)
850-410-3800 (calling outside of Florida)
1-800-FL-AYUDA (352-9832) En Español
www.800helpfla.com

American Red Cross – Donations Hotline
1-800-HELP-NOW (435-7669)
www.redcross.org

State of Florida
Volunteer and Donations Hotline
1-800-FL-HELP1 (354-3571)
Florida Department of Elder Affairs
1-800-96-ELDER (963-5337)
www.elderaffairs.state.fl.us

Florida Department of Financial Services
Insurance Claim Hotline

1-800-22-STORM (227-8676)
www.myfloridacfo.com

Agency for Workforce Innovation
Unemployment Claims Emergency Hotline

1-800-204-2418
www.floridajobs.org

Salvation Army – Donation Helpline
1-800-SAL-ARMY (725-2769)
www.salvationarmyusa.org

Federal Emergency
Management Agency (FEMA)
Registration / Application for Assistance

1-800-621-FEMA (621-3362)
www.fema.gov

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