Most of us were shocked and saddened by the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. Many of us were ready to help and offered assistance in some form to the victims. But few of us probably take seriously the chance that such a disaster could happen to us. For example, if your home isn't in an area vulnerable to flooding, you don't think about that danger. If your region doesn't experience tornados or earthquakes very often, you don't think about them too much, either.

But the most severe earthquake in the continental U.S. (8.1 on the Richter scale) happened in 1811 where people today might least expect it -- in Missouri. And in 2000, tornados caused considerable damage in downtown Dallas and Miami, not exactly places generally prone to them. Then there are other kinds of calamities, non-environmental ones, that can be just as disastrous to a household. Consider, for example, the story of Fool community member Doggiediner, shared recently on our Living Below Your Means discussion board:

This is actually [my husband's] bust and boom year, but I was right there with him. It all started in October 2004:

First, [he] got abruptly fired for no reason. Then his mother died suddenly from a brain tumor. Finally, [he] was rushed into emergency surgery a few days before Halloween 2004. They removed a huge, malignant tumor growing in his spine. Doctors weren't sure if he'd live or if he did live, if he would be permanently paralyzed. Two weeks after surgery, he was sent home in a wheelchair. So at the end of 2004, I had a depressed, disabled, and unemployed [husband] ... and months of rehab ahead. Then the credit card debt started quickly mounting.

Luckily, he was on my health plan at work. However, he was disabled for three months while he went through chemo and physical therapy. Our modest savings went fast. He had the breadwinner paycheck and we had to make ends meet with cash advances from the credit cards. That was the "bust" phase of our lives. Then just when I was despairing over our mounting debt, Lady Luck smiled upon us.... I inherited an unexpected windfall -- enough to pay off all our debt!

Flash forward to present: [He] has a new job, is walking and has been declared cancer-free. It's been a wild ride....

She then listed the lessons she learned:

  • Have an emergency fund with three to six months' of living expenses. "Even with full health coverage, between our deductible, co-insurance and co-pays, we ate through the savings in a hurry."

  • Make sure you have health insurance. "Our bills have topped $200,000 and are growing. [My husband] will require MRIs and CAT scans annually for four more years. My health plan paid 95% of our bills. At least get major medical from This is no joke. We're in our 40s and have been healthy all our lives. Neither of us smoke or drink and we both exercise."

  • Don't try to manage it all alone. "Get help if you are a caretaker. I can't believe I kept working, took care of [my husband], two big dogs and ran the household. I almost had a nervous breakdown. I was stressed out over medical bills, credit card bills, auto repair bills, etc. Get counseling, recruit people to [spend time with] your spouse/relative, run errands for you, bring food, help clean, return phone calls or emails to concerned friends. There's an excellent website I wish I had found back then:"

The bottom line here is important. The unexpected happens. Whether it's a natural disaster, a financial one, or some other kind, you'd do well to be prepared. As many Hurricane Katrina victims are realizing now, insurance can be critical.

Learn more about ways to protect yourself in these articles:

Learn more about insurance in our Insurance Center. You may not have thought about some kinds of insurance, such as disability or long-term care insurance, but they're vital for many people. And, of course, properly insuring your property is vital, too. Take a little time to learn more and you may be very happy you did if some calamity occurs in the future.

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian does not own shares in any companies mentioned here .