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.
Claiming flood damage
This can be a tough call in a region hit by both rainstorms and flooding.
Homeowners' policies cover water damage caused by rain that gets in through damaged windows and roofs, said Jeanne Salvatore of the Insurance Information Institute in New York. But damage from rising surface waters, that is, flooding, is generally excluded, she said.
As a result, many families in flood plains and other low-lying areas often purchase special coverage under the National Flood Insurance Program. These policies are generally purchased through insurance company agents, and that's where families should go to file their flood damage claims, Salvatore said.
Getting government aid
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is responsible for coordinating recovery activities in federally declared disaster areas, operates the Individuals and Households Program, which can provide money for temporary housing as well as home repair and replacement, auto repair, moving and storage. The program is often the best source of help for those without insurance.
The agency has a detailed publication titled ''Help After a Disaster'' on its Web site, www.fema.gov, that helps families determine if they're eligible and allows them to register for grants.
FEMA generally sets up centers in disaster areas to process applications, but people in federally declared disaster areas also can apply by calling the agency's hot line at 800-621-FEMA (800-621-3362).
Getting government loans
The Small Business Administration, which provides loans to help small businesses rebuild, also coordinates the Home and Personal Property Loan Program. The program makes low-interest loans, currently 2.68 percent for up to 30 years, available to families who need extra money to rebuild.
''In a lot of cases that we've seen, losses exceed their insurance coverage,'' said SBA spokeswoman Carol Chastang. ''In some cases it's water damage. A lot of people make the assumption that homeowners insurance covers flood damage, and it doesn't.''
Chastang said loans of up to $200,000 are available for home repair and up to $40,000 to replace personal property, such as furniture and clothing. ''Renters can also apply for that $40,000,'' she said.
She said the best way for families to access the program was to register with FEMA. Families can find information about the SBA loan program at www.SBA.gov/Disaster.
J. Robert Hunter, a former federal insurance administrator who is director of insurance for the nonprofit Consumer Federation of America in Washington, D.C., said some families will be surprised to find they have to dig deeper into their pockets because of hurricane deductibles.
He said that after Hurricane Andrew devastated the Gulf Coast in 1992, many insurance companies added clauses so that homeowners are not only responsible for cash deductibles, say $500 out of pocket before their insurance kicks in, but also deductibles of 2 percent to 5 percent of the house's value if the damage is hurricane related.
''It's kind of buried in the paperwork at renewal, so some people are surprised when they submit claims,'' Hunter said.
There also may be policy limits on replacement costs, he said.
Hunter suggests that people who are not happy with insurance settlement offers first complain to senior staff at the insurance company. If the matter isn't settled, they should seek help from the state's insurance department. If they're still not satisfied, he said, hire a lawyer to pursue the claim.
Copyright 2005 Associated Press