The well-documented devastation of Superstorm Sandy has given way to the slow slog of disaster recovery. And while the impact of Sandy was largely limited to the Northeast, don’t think natural disaster won’t visit your hometown.

Insured losses from disasters such as floods, hurricanes and tornadoes globally averaged $9 billion a year in the 1980s and jumped to $36 billion per year in the 2000s, according to a report issued earlier this year by Munich Re, the world's largest reinsurance firm. The Munich Re attributes the increase to climate change, a factor that some experts say contributed to the ferocity of Sandy.

So, what do you do when Mother Nature wrecks your house? What are the first steps in disaster recovery?

After letting family and friends know you’re okay, one of the first calls you should make is to your insurance agent. But it’s important to talk to the person providing your homeowner’s insurance before disaster strikes, experts say.

The typical homeowner’s insurance policy doesn’t cover all natural disasters. Property damage from a tornado or a wildfire is certain to be covered, but the typical homeowners insurance policy does not cover damages due to landslides, floods or earthquakes. And it was flooding storm surge that did most of the damage in New Jersey, New York and other states struck by Sandy.

Homeowners living in a flood plain are required by the mortgage lender to buy a separate flood insurance policy. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) encourages homeowners and renter to buy flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program. Flooding can happen anywhere it rains, and just a few inches of water from a flood can cause major damage. From 2007 to 2011, the average residential flood claim amounted to almost $30,000. Few things speed disaster recovery like a check from an insurance company.

If your community is included in a federal disaster declaration, after you hang up with your insurance agent, call FEMA to register for possible federal assistance.

Federal disaster assistance from FEMA may include grants to help pay for temporary housing, emergency home repairs or other serious disaster-related not covered by insurance, such as repair of wells or septic tanks.

Low-interest disaster loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration also will be available to cover residential and business losses not covered by insurance.

Register with FEMA online or via smartphone by going to FEMA’s mobile site. You may also call 800-621-3362. A critical step in disaster recovery is replacing important records scattered or damaged during the disaster. While the list of damaged documents varies from person to person, here is a quick guide to replacing lost records:

  • Insurance: Ask your agent for copies of your policies, recent billing statements and cash-value statements.
  • Financial records: Contact your bank, credit union, credit card company, brokerage firm and credit bureau for copies of account statements, loan applications, credit reports and other records.
  • Social Security card: Find the nearest Social Security Administration office by calling 800-772-1213 (TTY 800-325-0778) or going to the SSA website. You will need to show identification such as driver’s license, state-issued identification card or U.S. passport.
  • Federal Tax returns: You have two options for getting copies of your federal tax return information. You can call 800-829-1040, or order transcripts by mail using IRS Form 4506T – Request for Transcript of Tax Return – found at the IRS website.

Planning ahead for emergency

An emergency preparedness kit should include copies of important documents such as your driver’s license, Social Security card, insurance policies, family birth certificates and tax records to help save time in your recovery efforts. Store the documents in a plastic bag with a tight seal or in a water-proof container. You should also keep a copy of such records in a bank safe-deposit box or with a trusted relative.

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