Disasters can be large scale or only affect you. They can be local, regional or affect even larger areas. They can take various forms - from fires to flooding, to tornados to terrorism, to cyber to earthquakes.
But they have one thing in common - they can separate you from your finances, your valued possessions, and from your identity. The last thing you want to have to worry about in a disaster is protecting these critical items when time doesn't allow for it.
First Visualize A Disaster
The first thing you need to do is use your imagination to place yourself in a disaster situation.
There's a tornado on its way. The sirens are wailing and the emergency alerts are scrolling across the television screen. Everyone is telling you to "TAKE SHELTER NOW!" You run outside and see the rolling black clouds. The wind is picking up and dust is starting to fly.
Your kids are playing on the playset and you scream for them to get inside and into the basement immediately. Being kids, and not understanding the need to hurry, they take their time to stop swinging. You hear a thundering sound and see a massive gray swirling mass that seems to stretch across the whole horizon heading in your direction. You don't have time to grab anything while you make a mad rush with your kids down the basement stairs.
The house shakes and trembles. You hear noises like you've never heard before - shrieking, moaning and then what sounds like a freight train exploding. You throw your hands protectively over your terrified kids. You're terrified yourself but you have to stay strong. After what seems like an eternity the sounds and shaking subside. You wait another minute before you shakily walk up your stairs and open the basement door.
That's when you realize that most of your house is gone. A few walls stand, but where the second story used to be is daylight. Electrical wires are everywhere. You push your way through the debris and see your refrigerator sitting across your driveway. Where the kitchen wall used to be you are able to look down the street and you see a swath of destruction - all of your neighbor's houses are gone.
Of course safety first. You get your kids out of the house. You make sure everyone is OK and not hurt. But that's when you start realizing that your life was in your house - your cell phone, your wallet with your driver's license, credit cards and debit cards, your home insurance information, your birth certificates and social security cards, your passport - everything that lets you get in touch with others, get money and identify who you are. You have no place to go, no way to pay for anything. On top of that, when you do figure out how to make an insurance claim you realize you have no good inventory of what's in your home that's of value.
Now ask yourself - what do you need? What items are important immediately? What will you need later?
Your Phone Is Your Friend
First, get storage. If you have an Android phone, sign up for Google Drive or Dropbox. If you have an iPhone, make sure you have signed up for iCloud. Oftentimes, you can get the storage space for free or for very low cost. Next, make sure you have set your phone up to synchronize photos and video. There are a number of apps that focus on document storage, but it's better to do something than to spend time figuring out the best program.
Now, grab your wallet or purse. Take everything out of it. Grab your phone, and take pictures of both sides of anything important that might be difficult or impossible to replace - credit and debit cards, driver's licenses, military cards, other ID cards, membership cards, etc.
Let's go into your paper files if you have them. Take pictures of your insurance policies, birth certificates, social security cards, marriage licenses, divorce certificates, adoption papers or child custody documents. Take pictures of vehicle titles, loan documents, home lease or rental agreements, child support documents, bank statements, 401k and other financial documents, disabilities documents, powers of attorney - anything that would be difficult to replace if lost. If you have receipts for big ticket items, make sure to get these too. Once again, focus on the items that might be difficult or impossible to replace.
If you're lazy (like me), here are a couple of suggestions.
First, you can often get away with taking pictures of just the first pages and signature pages of documents. These are the pages that often contain the most important information - policy numbers, account information, addresses, telephone numbers and coverage information. Sometimes it might be the first 2-3 pages. For legal documents, make sure you get the signature pages too - these can act as proof that something is valid.
Second, if you don't feel like taking individual pictures, set your phone to video and page through all of the documents. Make sure to pause for at least a second on each page, and make sure that the page is in focus and you're zoomed in to see the information clearly, while also capturing the entire page.
Now, walk around your house recording video with your phone. You may want to take one video of each room so that you can update the video at a later time without re-recording the entire thing. While you're recording, narrate the video and comment on what you're looking it.
Stop in each room, and slowly pan around. Make sure to capture art on the walls; electronics like televisions, stereos and game consoles; appliances and furniture (especially antiques or custom pieces); rugs; window air conditioning units; fitness equipment. Open drawers and get their contents on video. Rummage around them to ensure that you've captured everything. Go through your video game collection and capture everything. If you have a jewelry box, open it and hold each piece of jewelry up to the camera. Make sure to get things from all angles - especially if it's valuable. Also, if something is name brand, make sure the label is visible in the video.
Unless you live in a mansion (and some people do), this video process shouldn't take too long - but it's incredibly important as you will never remember everything you own, and sometimes you need to prove to the insurance company that you actually owned items of value.
Make sure you get every part of your house, including your garage, basement, attic, bathrooms, closets, crawlspaces and any outbuildings you might have, plus your car.
Once the process is complete, make sure all of your files are transferred online by visiting the website of the system you are using (such as Google Drive or iCloud).
If you buy new items of value, take a quick video or picture and add it to your archive.
Now Make Online Lists
You don't need to do everything at once. I'm not looking to ruin your entire weekend. But - you should also make lists of important information - Doctor's numbers; prescriptions you take (along with the pharmacy you use and the prescription number if there is one); bank telephone numbers; credit card telephone numbers; Insurance company telephone numbers and policy numbers. Any numbers or information that will help you get replacement documents or financial instruments. You don't want to have to look everything up, or remember who you have policies through, in the event of a disaster.
Once again, take all of this information, save it in a word processing file, and put it online with your videos and pictures.
A Few Other Notes
Here are a couple of thoughts that don't fit neatly into their own sections.
First, if you're like me you'll have a lot of family photos and videos. You should consider having these converted to a digital format if they aren't already. I know I'd hate to lose that photo of my father when he was 5 years old back in the 1920's. I'd hate to lose the VHS videos of my kids when they first learned to ride their bikes. Honestly, most people don't do this until it's too late and the items are destroyed - but at least consider having it done.
Second, consider getting a safety deposit box at the bank for really important documents. I can't tell you what these documents are, but I'm sure you have a few and you know which ones should be there.
Neither of these things tend to be done by the majority of people, but I thought I'd throw them out there for consideration.
What Should You Protect?
I've compiled this list from various sources. The sources I've used are detailed below.
- Vital records (birth, marriage, divorce, adoption, child custody, death certificates)
- Passport, driverís license, or other identification documents
- Social Security cards
- Military Records
- Property leases, deeds, mortgages, and records
- Stock and Bond Certificates
- Financial documents including copies of pay stubs, bank accounts, etc.
- Legal titles (auto, home)
- Insurance policies
- Wills, living wills, and powers of attorney
- Recent tax returns
- Medical records including lists of prescription medicines, medical conditions, medical provider contact information, copies of health insurance/Medicare/Medicaid cards, etc.
- Debit/credit card numbers
- Home/bank safe deposit information/keys
- Records of passwords and personal identification numbers (PINs)
- Family photos, keepsakes, jewelry, or other mementos
- Photographic or data inventory of valuables (photos, videos, CD/flash drive)