The lights are slowly starting to come back on after Hurricane Sandy, but planning clients up and down the Eastern seaboard are facing big losses -- both total and partial -- on primary residences, vacation homes and commercial real estate.

Ultimately, damages to the region could amount to $50 billion, according to Jim Kane, president of personal insurance at HUB International. HUB is well placed to gauge the storm's impact: The 10th largest independent insurance brokerage nationwide, it sells policies for more than 2,000 large and small insurance companies, with many of its customers in the Northeast.

Kane says it's still too early for most claims to be assessed and filed. “What we have is a manpower problem,” he says. “There’s so much work to be done.”

But even at this early stage, he says, there are several pieces of advice that planners can (and should) offer to clients who are contending with damages:

1. Don't Give In to Paralysis

People faced with large losses sometimes freeze up and fail to take loss-mitigating steps. Instead, they should go ahead and do what they can on their own, Kane says, before claims adjusters or other workers arrive to help.

“You have the right to protect your property,” he says. ”The first step is documentation."

2. Take Photos of the Damage

In best-case scenarios, homeowners will have photographs of their homes and other property that were taken before any of the damage had occurred.

But even if there are no "before" shots, your clients now need to fully document the damage with photos. Those images should be backed up, for safety’s sake, with digital versions sent along to insurers.

3. Go Ahead and Hire Contractors

Some clients do nothing after a disaster, because they don’t want to interfere with adjustors’ assessments, Kane says. They also may not want to adversely affect the ultimate size of their insurance settlements. Tell them not to worry: They will not be penalized by their insurers for taking steps to help, Kane says.

“You get back to your house and you’ve got four feet of water in the lower level," he says. "Take a picture. [And] if at that point you have a contractor who says, ‘I’ve got the equipment to pump the water out,’ go ahead and do it.”

Kane says policyholders are acting in the best interests of not only themselves but of the insurers as well. “My point is to secure the property to try to mitigate loss,” Kane says.

4. Can't Contact Your Insurer? Take Action Anyway

Many East Coast-based insurers have been as affected by the storm as their policyholders have. Several of HUB’s offices in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York remain without power, Kane says. Even though adjustors want to hear from people with claims, often neither the policyholder nor the adjustor can call each other.

“We are, no pun intended, being inundated with phone calls on claims,” Kane says. “But one of the challenges is that phone lines are down.”

5. Know That High Deductibles May Be Waived

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, Kane says, state insurance commissions asked the industry to waive higher deductibles. This applies in particular to policies with relatively low deductibles for wind and hail damage but, say, a $6,000 deductible for hurricane damage. These definitional issues become important, he says, especially when meteorologists change the status of a storm before it makes landfall.

Going forward, there will be much debate about how much damage will be covered by flood insurance versus hurricane insurance, he says. But at this early stage, indications are that insurers will accede to official requests to waive higher deductibles. “Given something of this size and damage, ultimately, it’s the right thing to do,” Kane says.

6. Be Patient

Once you’ve done all you can, keep in mind that only so much can be done to assess and fulfill claims right away. Right now, roads are blocked throughout the region and many people can’t get gas. One policyholder who Kane spoke with on Tuesday told him he has not been able to get to his home. Based on reports from authorities in the area, it looks like “they are not going to physically see the property for 10 days,” says Kane.

It won’t be pretty when some people return to their homes. “People in New Jersey will come home and find their homes washed off their mooring,” Kane says. “We’ve got pictures where portions of their homes were sliced off.” In some coastal areas, those damaged or destroyed homes carried price tags of $1 million or more.

Fortunately, Kane says, the insurance business in the Northeast is well-funded and should be able to cover all the claims headed their way. “The good news is this happened in the Northeast,” he says. “If this same loss had occurred in, say, Florida, where a large percentage of clients are buying insurance through startup companies because that’s the only place where you can get middle market policies of $250,000 to $1 million, I’d be worried if [the industry] could sustain this size of loss.”

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