Will your insurance help after a catastrophe?

A firefighter conducting a search and rescue operation at an apartment complex destroyed by the explosion. LM Otero/AP

(MoneyWatch) As the people of West, Texas, begin picking up the pieces of their homes and lives, and homeowners in the central region of the country begin a massive bailout due to the recent storm, many homeowners are wondering what to do next.

For the thousands of people who evacuated and the dozens whose houses were damaged in Texas, getting help should be a top priority, starting with their homeowners insurance companies.

"The emotional toll here is significant," said Bill Mellander, spokesperson for Allstate Insurance Company in Texas and a member of the company's national catastrophe team. "People should take a moment and try and collect their thoughts, because when it comes to the insurance claim, the insurance aspect of it, it's not something that you want to go into when your head is not clear."

Anyone directly impacted should call their insurance agents right away. "The sooner you call, the quicker your recovery can begin," Mellander added. For residents who are displaced due to the blast, insurance benefits might include a daily living stipend while your home is being repaired, in addition to rent on a new place to live as well as a check to begin replacing household items that were lost.

In a situation like the one unfolding in West Texas, even homeowners and renters whose homes were not immediately damaged may still get help from their insurance companies with other expenses.

Many homeowner's and renter's insurance policies have coverage for people who are displaced due to civil requests, Mellander said. Your insurance company may be able to compensate you for a hotel or other additional living expenses if you are forced to flee an area because the government has shut it down.

Homeowners and renters should also check on their coverage. Your insurance benefits will change depending on the cause of the damage, so damage caused by an explosion is different than that caused by a natural disaster, such as flooding due to a monster storm or hurricane.

While each person's insurance coverage is different, those with renter's or homeowner's insurance are likely to be covered in some way.

If you weren't directly affected by the tragic explosion, it's a good reminder to take another look at your insurance coverage. There were 150 incidents of man-made disasters, including fires and explosions, last year in the U.S., causing just under $6 billion damages, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

"It's always a good idea to find out what coverage you have, particularly if you have a home that's updated with things like granite countertops," said Loretta Worters, spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute. "You want to make sure you have the right amount, but also the right type of coverage."

Unfortunately, many of the people affected in Texas were renters and if they didn't have renter's insurance, they may find it impossible to recoup any losses.

"If you're a renter, this is a big reminder to consider getting renter's insurance," she said.

Renters with insurance would likely be covered for the loss of their personal property as well as for living expenses while their homes are uninhabitable.

A spokesperson from Traveler's Insurance also recommend looking at your policy's replacement coverage and asking your agent if you're fully insured for a total replacement of your property and contents or a fraction of the total loss.

Homeowners and renters with insurance also want to make sure their home inventories are sufficiently updated, said Ed Charlebois, vice president at Traveler's.

Plenty of companies and organizations offer mobile apps so you can take a detailed inventory of all your possessions easily, so they too will be covered in case of a catastrophic loss. It's also a good idea to digitize important documents and carry them on a flash drive that can be taken with you in case of an evacuation, copy them to a cloud, leave a copy in a bank safe deposit vault or store them in a fireproof safe that might withstand significant damage.

While there's not a lot you can do to prepare for an event like this, staying on top of your insurance coverage always helps.

"This is why you have insurance," Mellander said. "People buy insurance to protect them from risks, from the completely unexpected."

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    Ilyce R. Glink is an award-winning, nationally syndicated columnist, best-selling book author, and radio talk show host who also hosts "Expert Real Estate Tips," a Internet video show. She owns ThinkGlink.com as well as Think Glink Media, a privately held company that provides consulting, content and video services companies and non-profit organizations.

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