By Cheryl Fiandaca

BOSTON (CBS) – Families devastated by the widespread explosions in the Merrimack Valley are going to be anxious to get their homes repaired as soon as possible. “It’s normal to make a claim because they need funds, but that could be a mistake,” explained attorney Doug Sheff.

Back in 2005, a similar explosion in Lexington destroyed an historic home and hundreds of others were without gas for almost a week. In that case, a different gas company claimed responsibility and covered all expenses related to that accident.

Sheff is warning homeowners to check with a lawyer before signing off on an insurance claim because it could mean the loss of a right to other claims. “Are there other entities responsible? [You] could leave most of the money on the table,” he explained.

gascheck Attorney: Making Insurance Claim Immediately After Gas Explosion Could Be A Mistake

A Columbia Gas worker checks a gas meter, September 14, 2018. (WBZ-TV)

Insurance agent Tom Skelly also told us that because law enforcement ordered evacuations, many policies may cover expenses for those whose homes were not even damaged. Money spent on things like hotel rooms, meals, added commuting expenses, even laundry services could be reimbursable.

There may also be help for businesses shuttered since the evacuation. Many commercial policies may cover lost revenue.

If you are a renter and don’t have insurance there might also be help available.

Columbia Gas has set up a claims hotline for those impacted by this disaster: 1-800-590-5571

There will also be a claims center opened daily beginning this Sunday at the Lawrence Public Library. It will be open on Sunday 9 a.m.-5p.m. Starting Monday it will be open 8 a.m.-5 p.m.

Read: List Of Streets Where Emergency Crews Will Visit

Read: Andover Safe Streets List

Read: North Andover Safe Streets List

Tips From Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey

Homeowners Who Suffered Damage

  • If your home has been damaged or destroyed, it is important that you make a list as soon as possible of valuable items in your home (furniture, jewelry, electronics, cash, etc.). This will help complete claims paperwork later.
  • Keep all receipts for any money you spend related to this emergency, such as hotel bills, monies paid to hospitals, replacement clothing or baby supplies, etc.
  • If possible, document any damage with pictures or videos and do not dispose of any damaged items unless instructed otherwise.
  • Use reasonable means to save and preserve property that has not already been destroyed. For example, if possible, board or tarp open areas exposed to the elements to prevent water damage.
  • Public adjusters may attempt to contact you and offer to handle your insurance claim on your behalf. Public adjusters are supposed to act as your representative in dealing with an insurance company in exchange for a percentage of your insurance settlement. There is no requirement that you hire a public adjuster to handle your claim, but if you decide to enter into an agreement with a public adjuster, please read the contract carefully before signing it.

Displaced Renters

  • Many renters in the region may be unable to safely occupy their homes for days or weeks, depending upon the extent of the damage. Some housing may be permanently uninhabitable.
  • Renters should contact their landlord and notify them in writing about the extent of damage to rental units.
  • Residents may want to document damage with photographs from their unit, if the unit can be entered safely.
  • If units are uninhabitable, renters should discuss alternate housing that the landlord can provide or withholding rent while the renter finds other housing.
  • Renters should review the terms of their leases to hold informed conversations.
  • All rental housing in Massachusetts must meet state standards for health and safety.

Make Smart, Safe Charitable Contributions to Support Victims

  • Never give to a charity you know nothing about. Well-established charities with experience in disaster relief, community foundations, or organizations established with support from government agencies are generally a good choice. One example is the Lawrence Emergency Fund of the Essex County Community Foundation.
  • If you are contributing over the internet, make sure that the website you are visiting belongs to a legitimate and established charity.
  • Most crowdfunding sites are not charities and many typically take a percentage of your donation as a fee.
  • Ask lots of questions. How much of the money goes to the charity and how much to a professional fundraiser? Ask if your contribution is tax deductible and what the charity intends to do with any excess contributions that might remain after the victims’ needs are addressed.
  • Beware of social media posts or emails soliciting donations to copycat organizations or fake websites.
  • Do not give your personal or financial information to anyone soliciting money.
  • Never pay by cash. Pay by check or credit card and make a check out directly to the charity, not the fundraiser or any other individual. Specify, on the check and in writing, whenever possible, the purpose of your donation.
  • Visit the Donating to a Charity page on the AG’s website.
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