Survivors from Hurricanes Andrew, Charley and Ivan offer this advice to the devastated victims of Hurricane Katrina: Reach out to others, help them and be sure to let them help you.
Until Katrina, Hurricane Andrew held the title as America's most expensive natural disaster, causing $25 billion worth of damage when it barreled through Florida and Louisiana in August 1992.
The city of Homestead, Fla., where Charles Smith had been renting a home for 20 years, was hit pretty hard. And so was his house.
"We lost some roofing, and after that there was a lot of water damage," he said. "We couldn't go back. Instead of being repaired, that housing complex would later be condemned."
Smith, his wife and their 3-year-old daughter moved around to a couple of places in the area, getting assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Smith saw so much destruction, he decided to join Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit organization that builds housing.
"I wanted to do something to help," he says.
It may sound incredible that someone in Smith's circumstances would decide to become a volunteer, but Dr. Robert Butterworth, a Los Angeles-based psychologist, says he chose to the best possible thing for himself.
"In the midst of tragedy and destruction, volunteering gives you a sense of purpose and keeps you busy, which distracts you from your own situation," he says. "Victims often decide to help others, to do something positive in a world that's been turned upside down."
Habitat for Humanity turned Smith's life right-side up. After a couple of weekends of volunteering, he decided to fill out an application for a home. It was accepted, and Smith is now a proud homeowner in South Miami Heights.
And last year, Smith became the director of Miami's two locations of Habitat ReStore, which sells donated building materials, tools, and appliances to the public at discounted prices, with the profits financing Miami Habitat's building efforts.
"For me, the hurricane was like a new beginning," he says. "I went from volunteer to homeowner to director."
When Hurricane Charley raged through Charlotte County, Fla., on Aug. 13, 2004, Joanna Gournault and her family watched the storm at her sister's house, which didn't sustain any damage. When they returned home to Harbour Heights, Fla., however, it was quite a different story.
"The whole back was blown off," says Gournault of the house that she had lived in for 16 years, and had just spent $75,000 renovating.
The insurance company put up the Gournaults in Bradenton, Fla., which was an hour and 40 minutes drive by car. Gournault's husband only spent a week there because he felt he was too far away from his towing business, which was getting a lot of work because of the hurricane.
Soon, the whole family moved into a trailer in their driveway, where they lived from August through April while their house was being rebuilt.
Naturally, there was a lot of friction inside that small trailer, with four people -- Gournault, her husband and their two younger daughters, ages 3 and 13 -- living in such close quarters.
But Gournault preferred the cramped living to the first weeks after Charley. Then, she was forced to send her youngest daughter, sick with stomach problems and impetigo, to a hospital in Tampa, where her husband's ex-wife lives, because the Punta Gorda, Fla., hospitals still were overwhelmed.
Somehow, Gournault got through it.