Living out of
your car during
a natural disaster
Fact-checked with HomeInsurance.com
Table of contents
This year has been one for the record books. While wildfires have rapidly scorched the West Coast, hurricanes and tropical storms have kept the Gulf and Atlantic states busy with disaster preparation. Of course, there is also the global pandemic that is still sweeping the country, despite our best efforts otherwise.
Home is something we can no longer take for granted. Earthquakes, tornadoes, flooding and landslides are all examples of natural disasters that can sweep away your possessions and suddenly leave you without a home.
If the unthinkable happens, it’s not enough to think you’re prepared — you need to be prepared. For many, home can quickly become one’s car.
If you find yourself suddenly homeless and living out of your car, this is what you need to know.
Who’s at risk?
Research from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) shows that lower-income individuals are most at risk from natural disasters. Although they receive disaster warnings, they can often not react or have the emergency funds to prepare in advance. SAMHSA considers lower-income individuals as those with lower incomes, public housing residents and homeless or unemployed individuals.
“The elderly, disabled, and homeless are the ones more vulnerable during a natural disaster,” says Lindsey Maxwell. As the co-founder of her blog Where You Make It, she has converted two vans and traveled the U.S. extensively.
It’s also true that some locations may pose greater risk to its residents than others.
Types of disasters by state
Florida may be known for its hurricanes, but according to the Insurance Information Institute (III), these are the top five costliest states based upon their cumulative reported insured losses.
|State||Type of natural disasters||Estimated insured loss (millions)||Number of claims|
|Texas||Hurricanes, hailstorms, tornadoes, flood, fire, extreme heat and cold||$7,236.4||583,050|
|Illinois||Severe storms, flood, tornadoes, snow||$1,707.2||168,100|
|Colorado||Hailstorms, fire, flood, droughts, blizzards||$1,366.9||127,450|
|Ohio||Severe storms, flood, tornado, snow||$1,345.1||106,950|
|California||Wildfires, earthquakes, flood, severe storms||$1,321.7||71,450|
What is usually covered by insurance?Having insurance coverage can help in the face of a disaster with replacing lost items and giving you a place to stay while your home is being repaired. The III breaks down the basic coverage types that typically come with the standard homeowners or renters insurance policy. Below, highlights the property coverage that typically applies in the event of a natural disaster.
Dwelling & personal property
|Hazard type||Basic HO-1||Broad HO-2|
|Fire or lightning||✔||✔|
|Windstorm or hail||✔||✔|
|Weight of ice, snow or sleet||✔|
|Hazard type||Special HO-3|
|Fire or lightning||✔|
|Windstorm or hail||✔|
|Weight of ice, snow or sleet||✔|
|Hazard type||Special HO-3||Renters HO-4||Condo/Co-op HO-6|
|Fire or lightning||✔||✔||✔|
|Windstorm or hail||✔||✔||✔|
|Weight of ice, snow or sleet||✔||✔||✔|
Dwelling & personal property
|Hazard type||Modified coverage HO-8|
|Fire or lightning||✔|
|Windstorm or hail||✔|
|Weight of ice, snow or sleet|
What is not covered by insurance?
While property insurance should cover most natural disaster claims, certain catastrophic events would be excluded from your standard property coverage. Without the proper coverage for these events, it could leave you in a serious bind.
- Floods: flood insurance usually requires separate insurance coverage that can be purchased from the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).
- Earthquakes: earthquake insurance is usually an add-on coverage that you purchase for your policy. In California, the California Earthquake Authority (CEA) is a useful resource.
- Maintenance damage: mold and termite infestation is considered a failure to maintain your home, so it may not be covered unless you purchase extra protection.
- Sewer backup: sewer backup requires additional insurance coverage as it is not commonly included in the standard homeowners, renters or flood process.
When you live in a high-risk area, the best thing you can do is be prepared, says Robert Stam. Today, he is the CEO of SEO Mandarin and caught the travel bug in his earlier years. “I spent several years traveling, living in and working out of my vehicle,” he explains.
“What living out of a car teaches is that with proper preparation, we can survive, even thrive, with the bare minimum,” he says. “While it may not be a sustainable long-term arrangement for many people, equipping a car with a basic camping kit can provide shelter and sustenance from even the most basic of vehicles.”
When Maxwell was traversing the country, her emergency kit was an invaluable partner on her travels. It is something she stresses the importance of now. “It’s crucial before a natural disaster hits your local area to create your own portable disaster kit. It would be best if you grabbed essential supplies you will need, such as important documents.”
She lists essential supplies that include the following:
- Cell phones and charges
- Battery-operated radio
- First aid kit
- Specific toiletries
- At least three day’s worth of non-perishable food and water
- Empty gas container
Stam adds on from his experience, “Equipping the car with a Car Inverter 12 VDC to 220V enables people to charge their electronics from the car battery, and more advanced setups can use solar panels to generate heat and power.”
You will also need to make some considerations for COVID supplies, to include:
- Sanitizing wipes
- Soap and hand sanitizer
“Packing them in a bookbag can make it easier to grab it fast when you need to evacuate immediately,” she advises.
Children and pets
When packing your must-have supplies, don’t forget to account for your children’s and pets’ needs.
Your children will find comfort in having their favorite things along for the adventure, so consider bringing items like:
- Favorite books or toys
- Blanket or pillow
The idea is to surround your child with things that will provide comfort in a scary situation.
It is important to familiarize yourself with the routes surrounding your home to have multiple exit points. There may be several road closures blocking your usual routes, so be sure to listen to local official advisories to know how to proceed.
Cell phone service can be spotty and unreliable during emergencies, so be sure to keep your radio and maps handy. Work with your family to develop a meetup plan in case you find yourselves separated in the chaos of the emergency.
Relying on your car
There is no time to waste in an emergency, so you should keep your vehicle ready at all times in case you need to evacuate.
Be sure to stay updated on all maintenance, and keep supplies ready for use.
“Organizing a to-go survival kit during a natural disaster also extends to emergency car supplies. You should make sure you have a spare tire, wheel wrench, tripod jack, jumper cables, flashlight and other tools you might need for your car,” says Maxwell.
You will want to make sure your car is road-ready with newer brake pads and windshield wipers. Don’t forget to stash current copies of your insurance and registration in a plastic bag, so they are not damaged by water or smoke.
As CEO of The Disaster Deck, Allison Barnard makes a living preparing people for emergencies and disaster relief. “Life-saving information is critical in a disaster when you’re in your car, especially when there is no cell service or power around you,” she says. “Knowing what to do in this type of emergency can make living in your car feel much more safe.”
A natural disaster is terrifying, but you should still take care to drive slowly and carefully. Obey the rules of the road and defer to local officials when it comes to navigating your evacuation route.
When you can’t return home, you will need to find somewhere to stop and rest because you can’t keep driving forever. Rest stops are a popular place to pull over, but you may need to consider parking lots or garages if you are in town.
Diane Vukovic is the lead writer at Primal Survivor and the author of Disaster Preparedness for Women. When you need to find somewhere safe to park your car, she recommends following these key tips to keep your car and family safe.
- Try to park your car somewhere safe.
- If you can afford it, put your car in a garage as the concrete walls will provide some protection from high winds and flying debris.
- If you can’t garage your car, then park next to a building on higher ground. The building will block some wind, and the higher elevation will protect against flooding.
- Make sure there aren’t any trees or power lines above your car as they can crash down on it.
- If you have a car cover, it can protect against flying debris and water, which might corrode electrical elements in the car. Use a bungee cord, rope or fishing line to tie the cover on or use duct tape to seal the edges of your windows, trunk and engine hood. It will help keep water out.
However, Vukovic says you shouldn’t remain in your car for an extended period.
“Staying in your car might seem like a smart choice during a hurricane or major storm, but it is actually one of the worst places you can be,” she warns. “It only takes six inches of water to move a vehicle, and higher water could send your car careening out of control into power lines, buildings or other dangers. Most drowning deaths during hurricanes and floods are vehicle-related. Ideally, you should find another shelter where you can stay safe until the disaster has passed.”
Transitional housing can help you avoid living out of your car while dealing with short-term losses to your permanent housing.
Maxwell advises, “Using the car radio can help get information from local radio stations on closeby housing and shelters set up for those affected by the natural disaster, especially if the cell towers are out. Contacting FEMA is a great way to find out the closest temporary housings in your area. However, some accommodations and shelters can fill up fast.”
The American Red Cross also provides resources on transitional housing, including emergency shelters in your area.
“There is no need for a reservation at an emergency shelter; you can just show up,” says Vukovic. “However, don’t expect the shelter to be equipped with supplies, so you’ll want to pack essentials. Shelters can be loud and cramped, so you might want to bring earplugs and a sleep mask. A pop-up tent is great for giving you some privacy while in the shelter.”
There are other programs that can help beyond shelters.
Maxwell suggests Airbnb. “Airbnb also has a disaster relief program called Open Homes that offers free temporary accommodation for those directly impacted by the natural disaster,” she says. “Hotels are another alternative, with some offering free or discounted rates for those who require emergency housing during a natural disaster.”
Rebuild or new
Your property policy’s loss of use coverage can help take of your costs while you’re away from home, but these are only for temporary living expenses.
When it is time to return home, your home may not be as you left it. There may be repairs or replacements needed, or you could even require entire parts of your home rebuilt. Many of the best insurance companies for homeowners and renters insurance offer online or mobile claims, giving you instant access to the claims process.
No matter the damage, your homeowners or renters insurance will be an invaluable help in restoring normalcy in your life and returning your home to the safe, secure sanctuary it always was before.
- FEMA Disaster Recovery Center (DRC) locator
- Assistance for tribal communities
- FEMA search by state
- Hospital directory to find a hospital near you