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Superstorms: How to prepare for a natural disaster

(MoneyWatch) Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc on the Northeast, and residents all over New York and New Jersey are still trying to clean up the damage. Though water was the main culprit in the destruction, it's not just coastal cities that are at risk of devastating natural disasters. Disasters of this magnitude can happen everywhere and it's important to be prepared -- no matter where you live.

While nothing is 100 percent preventable, taking steps to minimize risk can help reduce the damage caused by a disaster and help you get back to normal faster once the storm has passed.

Have a plan. A spokesperson at encourages both homeowners and renters to have an emergency plan in place long before a disaster strikes. Decide on a meeting point for everyone in the household; this is where everyone should meet in the event the house is destroyed.

Organize a telephone chain to ensure communication with family members both outside and within in the disaster area. Each person should be responsible for calling or texting a family member or friend, and the recipient of the call should be responsible for calling someone else until everyone is notified of what's going on.

Store important documents outside the home. The folks at Travelers Insurance suggest backing up all the documents you'll need to start your life after a disaster. These include birth certificates, wills, trusts and deeds as well as other important legal and financial documents. Medical records and licenses should also be stored as they may be necessary at a later time.

Consider keeping digital copies of these items on a password protected flash drive that you can take with you in the event of an emergency. You can also scan and upload copies of key documents to a cloud-based server, like Apple or Google. Keep hard copies in a fireproof safe that is light enough to transport with you should you need to leave. If you're nervous about keeping all that sensitive information in one place in your home, look into getting a safe deposit box at your bank.

Prepare an emergency kit. This kit is a must-have for every home. It should include a week's supply of canned food and water -- one gallon per person, per day. Other important items include a can opener, batteries, medicine, blankets, a first-aid kit, clothing and a portable radio.

It's a good idea to have a generator available in case of a power outage, but remember to only run it in a well-ventilated area. If you're nervous about theft, have a chain or bike lock handy to secure it outside.

Make sure you're properly insured. Homeowners are required to have insurance, but renters are not. experts say that if you're renting your home, it's a good idea to take out a renters insurance policy to protect the contents of your apartment. These policies are surprisingly affordable and protect you against damage caused by natural disasters or building problems, like burst pipes or fire.

If you own your home, call your insurance company to verify your policy covers flood. It might not, and you could be in for an unfortunate surprise if a damaging weather event occurs.

For insurance purposes, keep photos and an inventory of all the items in your home stored in the same place you keep your important documents. This will make it easier for you to make an insurance claim if your home is damaged in the disaster.

If you know a disaster is on the way, make sure you have a full tank of gas in your car and an extra gallon or two for your generator. Store the fuel in approved containers away from the house to avoid causing a fire. Make sure all your doors and windows have been properly secured, and bring outdoor furniture, grills and other loose items inside to keep them from blowing around and causing more damage. And if you're asked to evacuate, do it -- it's better to be safe than sorry.

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