Losing stuff is a distant second to the devastating loss of life. But for those trying to start over, gaining access to financial records, relocating to a job, finding a new job or even applying for unemployment benefits can be a challenge without identification, credit cards, ATM cards, account numbers, passwords, and online access – not to mention the complete absence of communication, clean water, electricity and the other necessities of first-world life.

Disasters come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, from hurricanes to fires to floods and earthquakes. Others include a sudden illness, job loss, death of a spouse or divorce. Each of these events can be devastating.

How prepared you are ahead of time will make it much easier to pick up the pieces afterward. Here are some ideas that can help. Learn to use a scanner. Scan your important documents, like your wills, powers of attorney for health care and financial matters, trusts, and insurance policies. You can even scan in your final year-end statements from your checking, savings and investment accounts. Back up the copies onto several CD-ROMs. Keep one in a safe deposit box, the other in your home safe. Back up your computer files. If you had to leave your house in 10 minutes, what would you take? You don’t need your whole computer, but it might make sense to grab your computer base or hard drive or laptop. You should know how to back up your important files onto a CD-ROM. If you backup your files at least once a week or once every other week (depending on how often you use your personal computer), and keep that disk in an easily accessible place, you’ll lose less in a catastrophic situation. It might also help to take a backup of your system once a month and put it somewhere else, like a safe deposit box.

Create contact lists. If something happens to you, it would be helpful for the person picking up the pieces to know who are the important people in your life. Friends and relatives, your children’s schools and doctors’ offices, your own physician, the people who cut your lawn and shovel your snow, babysitters, nanny or housekeeper should go on one contact list. The names of your attorney, accountant or tax preparer, employers, and other people in your financial life, should go on another. The lists should be updated and posted someplace in your home that’s easy to find (near the kitchen phone would be a good idea) as well as given to a trusted family member or friend.

Create lists of assets, and include contact information for them. It’s important to know where your assets are located. You can keep this list inside your computer, but in case of emergencies, it’s best to have a copy in your safe deposit box or at the office (just make sure it’s password protected.)

Get used to sending an itinerary. August is vacation time and many New Orleans residents were probably on vacation when Hurricane Katrina struck. But if no one knows where you went, it’s tough to get in touch to let you know if a disaster strikes. Be sure to include your cell phone number, if you have one, on every itinerary.

Develop a plan of action. If you and your spouse or partner or extended family members get separated in a disaster, you should have a pre-arranged place to meet or call once things get calmed down. While you may not be able to make it there right away, eventually all parties will get there. You might also want to pick a relative or friend who lives elsewhere who can serve as the go-between.

Rethink your insurance coverage. Should you get flood or earthquake insurance? Do you have enough health insurance, disability or other coverage? Do you need umbrella insurance? Spend some time looking at your current policies and what they cover. Then shop around for the best deal. You’ll find more information about various insurance policies at the Insurance Information Institute (iii.org).