FNC
Leigh Gallagher
Watching the residents of New Orleans, Biloxi, Gulfport and the surrounding area — the lucky ones, at least — flee or get forced out of their homes this week has been gutwrenching at best. Those watching the news unfold at home can only hope that they never have to flee such a disaster. But it can happen almost anywhere. You can minimize your risk long before a hurricane hits — or a twister, or a flood, or any other natural disaster — by having a plan and simply being prepared.

First, take a few steps to make recovering financially a little easier.
Take inventory of your home; take photographs or videos, and make a list of all your valuables. Safeguard any valuable papers — deeds, wills, insurance policies, contracts, titles, leases, etc. — in a high and dry location, or better yet, in a safety deposit box.

When it comes to hurricane protection, the most critical step to take is to prevent the wind from getting into your home. Once it does, it becomes a monster unleashed, whipping broken glass through the air and putting upward pressure on the roof that can, if winds are forceful enough, detach it altogether. Windows are the most vulnerable part of the home, so they need heavy reinforcement. Close shutters if you have them; if you don't, cover your windows with plywood that's at least 5/8'' thick. And don't try to copy your neighbor who's taping his windows: tape does absolutely nothing in a hurricane. Almost as critical as your windows is your garage door; if it was built before 1993, it only has to withstand winds up to 50 miles per hour (newly constructed homes may have doors wind-rated up to 150 miles per hour, as well as windows with shatterproof glass). Consider reinforcing it. Keep your car inside the garage, and keep it full of gas — if you're evacuated, roads will be congested.

Outside the home, secure any loose objects, or move them to a garage or shed: trash cans, grills, and outdoor furniture can become deadly flying objects. Clear loose and clogged rain gutters, and keep trees and shrubs around your home well-trimmed. Remove any weak or dead trees or tree limbs; these too can wreak havoc flying at 100 miles an hour. Taking these precautions is as much about protecting others as it is about protecting the home itself.

To safeguard your family, set up a communication plan, and keep a copy somewhere visible and safe. Consider picking one local and one out-of-state friend or relative to call in case members of your family get stranded. (It's often easier to call out-of-state than within the devastated area.) Teach children how to make these calls, too.

Pick two meeting places: a place near your home and a place outside your neighborhood in case you can't return home. Rehearse the plan with your family. Doing all of this ahead of time will make it second nature once disaster strikes. As the residents of Gulfport, New Orleans, Biloxi, and anywhere else in the Katrina-ravaged area will tell you, the worst thing you can do is be unprepared.

Tune in this weekend for a special LIVE Business Block on the cost of the Hurricane Katrina relief effort and clean up, Saturday starting at 10am ET.

Leigh Gallagher is a senior writer for SmartMoney magazine and a regular on "Cavuto on Business".