cyclone

With hurricane season officially kicking off June 1, Americans everywhere would be wise to safeguard their homes, businesses and valuables. Unfortunately, far too many Americans don’t know how to protect themselves from natural disasters—even when they know the risks are high.

Do you live, for example, in a disaster-prone area of the country? Perhaps some parts of the Midwest where there are hurricanes, tornados or frequent storms? Maybe you reside in parts of the South, or regions that are likely to have devastating floods and torrential rains that could put your property and assets at risk.

RELATED: 7 WAYS TO SPRING CLEAN YOUR FINANCES

You no doubt need flood insurance, homeowner’s insurance, and other types of protection, but how many of you have actually taken the time to get it—and to make sure your coverage is sufficient?

Here are five key ways to protect your property, your records and your finances in the event that a natural disaster strikes.  

1. Make Sure Your Home Is Adequately Insured 

Insurance experts say it’s vital that homeowners review their homeowner’s policies annually and make sure their coverage is sufficient to completely replace, rebuild or repair their homes in the event of a catastrophe.

Unfortunately, most people are vastly under-insured.

To ensure that you’re properly covered, don’t rely on estimates or suggestions from your insurance agent or realtor. Instead, get a local home contractor to come out and provide a detailed analysis of how much it would cost to rebuild your residence if it were to be completely wiped out.

Because most homeowner’s insurance policies are so-called “replacement cost” policies, their value is based on the cost required to rebuild your home from the ground up in its current condition. Local contractors or builders are in a position to know rebuilding information, since they’re familiar with labor costs, construction materials and the prices of various home finishes (such as ceramic tile vs. carpet or Corian countertops compared with Granite countertops).

As an alternative to dealing with a contractor, you can pay $7.95 and use an online tool offered by AccuCoverage.

An AccuCoverage report will calculate the replacement cost of your house based on such factors as your home style, its features and the materials used in it.

2. Consider Buying Separate Catastrophic Insurance Coverage

A tornado is considered by insurers to be a “wind event,” and is generally covered under most homeowner’s insurance policies. However, other disasters—such as earthquakes, floods, landslides and natural fires—are generally not covered by homeowners insurance. To get protection against these disasters, you must buy separate catastrophic insurance coverage.

Obviously, if a hurricane, tornado or fire were approaching, it would be foolish to go running through the house trying to round up documents. That doesn’t mean you can’t have speedy access to all your crucial paperwork.

For instance, the federal government underwrites flood insurance. The maximum coverage amount you can get is $250,000, and prices vary from about $350 annually in low-risk areas to more than $2,600 a year in high-risk zones.

Even though the cost of insurance can really add up, not being insured can be financially devastating. Sometimes, those living in the states hardest hit by tornadoes are the homeowners in these regions with the least amount of insurance. That’s a shame, because homeowners who lose everything after a natural disaster will face a tough road rebuilding, and will undoubtedly struggle to get compensated by insurers or the government for their losses.

3. Properly Document All Valuables

Another important way to prepare for a disaster is to photograph or videotape the contents of your home or apartment, especially any expensive items you own. Don’t forget to make a record of what’s in your garage or outdoor shed as well.

Having documented proof of your household items can make things easier when you’re dealing with your insurance company—and that goes for people with homeowner’s insurance as well as those with renter’s insurance.

Additionally, photographic records can help for tax purposes, aiding you in proving the market value of items for casualty loss claims. Check out IRS Publication 584, a disaster loss workbook which can help you create a room-by-room list of your belongings. Also read IRS Publication 547 to learn about the tax rules for casualties and disasters.

4. Secure Financial Documents and Personal Records

Knowing where your key financial documents are located is a smart idea any time. But in an emergency situation—where you may have only 10 or 15 minutes notice before you have to evacuate or take cover due to a natural disaster—it’s even more critical to be able to easily put your hands on important paperwork.

Obviously, if a hurricane, tornado or fire were approaching, it would be foolish to go running through the house trying to round up documents. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have speedy access to all your crucial paperwork in an emergency. One way to do so is to use a well-organized, personal document storage solution.

Try getting a tool like LifeInCase, a sturdy, portable file system that lets you conveniently sort and store important documents into five sections. The five sections are labeled to separate your personal, medical, property, estate and financial records. Best of all, by stashing your important papers—such as wills, estate documents or property records—in one compact place, you can just grab the LifeInCase unit and go in a pinch.

5. Backup Your Records Electronically

In addition to any physical records and photos you may store in your home, the IRS also recommends that you keep a set of backup records in a safe place—away from the original set.

Maintaining a backup set of records—such as bank statements, tax returns and your insurance policies—can be done easily online. Simply scan photos and paper documents to create electronic copies.

Many financial institutions provide statements and documents electronically. Plus, you can use third-party services to securely store sensitive data away from your home. Doing so means all your important paperwork and photos won’t be lost in the event a catastrophe hits your residence.

Take physical documents like a marriage license or stock certificates and put them into electronic form for extra security. That will allow you to later print those documents if necessary, download them to a backup storage device, like an external hard drive, or burn them to a CD or DVD.

Dealing with catastrophes such as tornadoes, hurricanes or fires is hard enough. But by taking a few precautionary measures up front—and planning for a worst-case scenario—you can at least be better prepared financially if a natural disaster strikes you and your loved ones.

Lynnette Khalfani-Cox is a personal finance expert and co-founder of the free financial advice site, AskTheMoneyCoach.com. Follow Lynnette on Twitter @themoneycoach and Google Plus.