When thousands of families displaced by Hurricane Katrina eventually return home, they'll start the process of assessing the damage to houses, cars and businesses and figuring out how to pay for putting their lives back together.
Most will be able to draw on resources ranging from private insurance policies to federal emergency grants or loans. The steps Katrina victims will take are similar to those families have faced in other natural disasters, including earthquakes, tornadoes and wildfires.
''The No. 1 rule is to keep yourself safe,'' said Steve West-Rosenthal of the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of New York. ''Nothing is more precious than your life and the lives of your loved ones.''
That means heeding the directives of emergency officials to stay out of unsafe areas and not trying to enter streets where power lines are down or homes that are structurally unsound.
People also need to stay calm while dealing with fallout from the hurricane, which risk assessment firms estimate has caused up to $25 billion in damage in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
''It's an emotional situation and a financially difficult situation at the same time, and that makes it especially hard,'' West-Rosenthal said.
Here are tips from experts on what families can do to begin the recovery process:
Assessing the damage
''The very first thing you need to do is take pictures of everything, regardless of condition,'' said Donald Griffin, a vice president with the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America in Chicago. This will create a record the family can use to show the extent of the damage.
''The next thing is to cover up the holes you've got, to try to prevent any more wind or rain damage,'' he said.
Such temporary repairs are allowed under most all homeowners policies, Griffin noted, so consumers should save all receipts for reimbursement.
Griffin advises families not to throw away damaged appliances, furniture or other costly possessions, if possible, until insurance adjusters can visit the site. ''Save the evidence,'' he said.
Paying for shelter
West-Rosenthal said most homeowners and renters policies provide coverage for emergency living expenses.
''Depending on the policy and the (insurance) company, this will pay the difference between what it would have cost you to live in your house and what it costs you because you're in a hotel,'' he said. Again, save all receipts, he said.
Families also need to make an inventory of damaged property, including autos and trucks, West-Rosenthal said. Some can draw on deeds and documents they kept in safe deposit boxes or with relatives in distant cities; others will have to reconstruct inventories from scratch.
''List property you have, where and when you acquired it, and how much it cost,'' he said. Insurance companies generally will pay for replacements ''of like kind and quality,'' he said.
John Eager, senior director for claims with the PCIAA, said policy holders should call their agents or the hot lines their insurance companies have set up to begin the claims process. A list of insurance companies' toll free numbers is on the association's site at www.PCIAA.net.
One of the first responders will be an assessor, or a scammer pretending to be an assessor.
''Anybody who goes into a disaster area gets a badge to be there,'' Eager said. ''They'll also have a second ID card that identifies them as an insurance representative.''
He said that people shouldn't hesitate to ask to see both.
Families who can't immediately reach their agents, whose own office and home may have been destroyed, can also seek help at federal emergency centers, where private insurance companies often set up claims processing operations.