Natural disasters often strike without warning. Earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and even torrential rains and ice storms can all wreak havoc on your home and leave you wondering where to turn. If you have experienced damage to your home following a natural disaster, following these steps can help you get your life back together.

1.  Call your insurance company.  If you don’t already have homeowners’ insurance, you can begin by getting a quote and comparing rates. Every homeowner should have insurance. Know ahead of time whether your insurance policy covers natural disasters, as some don’t.

2.  Take pictures of the damage.  Your insurance company may require them to help get you the money you need. Photos can also be helpful when speaking to contractors so that they can see the extent of the damage. A contractor’s expert eye may be able to determine from a photo whether the damage is mostly cosmetic or if the foundation of your home was affected.

3.  Be aware of the possibility of structural damage. Even if your home is still standing, it may have sustained serious damage to the foundation. This is especially important in case of an earthquake, as a single aftershock may be all it takes to bring the building down. Do not enter your home until it has been declared safe, even to try to save personal property. Belongings can be replaced; you and your family cannot.

4.  File a FEMA claim. If your area has been officially declared a natural disaster area, you may be able to file a claim with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. You can file a claim online at the FEMA website or by phone. Keep in mind that it may take time to have your case evaluated, especially if you are living in an area that is highly populated and severely damaged.

5.  Use caution when hiring a contractor.  Because contractor services are in very high demand following a natural disaster, some con artists may pose as contractors in order to scam people who are in a stressful situation. Don’t allow scammers to take advantage of you. Get recommendations from people you trust, insist on only using a contractor who is licensed and insured and do research on the contractor’s track record. Never deal with a contractor who insists on upfront payment.

6.  Make sure to have an expert check your plumbing and your electrical system to make sure that everything is in good condition.  Sometimes damage can occur within the walls of your home. Although you may not be able to see it, it could be causing ongoing damage that will cost you even more to repair. If you have a septic tank, it is important to have that checked and serviced as well. Until the water supply is deemed safe, make sure to boil any water from the tap.