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Protecting Your Valuables and Documents From A Disaster: A Primer

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  • Protecting Your Valuables and Documents From A Disaster: A Primer


    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)
    Other Resources
    januz101, ASurvivor and bala like this.
    Live your dream, don't dream your life.
    Chris L-S, CEO/Owner/Administrator, Disaster.Com

  • #2
    These are excellent tips. I think a lot of us (including myself) take the digital storage of this information for granted these days. In the event of a disaster most of this information will not be readily available. I will take the future precaution of storing hard copies it away. You never know when it could come in handy. I hope it doesn't it there's always a chance.


    • #3
      That's a great article. I actually just save my important files on my email since the files aren't large anyway. I think we also have to scan our ID's and important documents, since even if our camera is the high megapixel kind, the scanned version is always better and clearer than an ID or document taken with a camera. I would consider uploading my files to those online storage sites one of these days.


      • #4
        Great article labatt...
        How did you find time to compile such a huge list..?.I had some thoughts on what to save in the event of a disaster and this actually makes it easier for me to prepare one,i mean the list is there and all i have to do is get things in order.
        Online storage seems like a con to me..with the amt of thefts happening nowadays,i really don't trust it.


        • #5
          What an awesome article. I particularly like the idea of videotaping what you have in your home of value- I think phones are really becoming important in disasters these days. I know that was a huge issue after Hurricane Sandy, when people were trying to find a place to charge their phones because literally their whole lives were on the phone after flooding and destruction. I would recommend buying a power strip to keep with your emergency supplies, since you'll probably have few working outlets and multiple devices to charge. When I moved to another country for 9 months, I copied all of my important papers and kept an electronic copy as well as giving a copy in an envelope to my parents, in the even that I lost or damaged mine.


          • #6
            This list is pretty much what you need to have and protect in case of a disaster happening in your area. All those important documents and personal data and belongings should be stored in a water proof container and which is easily accessible to you when the need arises. Small things like these are what are always important and what we commonly forget when there is an emergency.


            • #7
              This is great. Well written and thought out. I do have photocopies of all my important documents, but I haven't backed them up digitally. That's something I have to do real soon.


              • #8
                This is an excellent article and gives good a good reminder to all of us how important these documents are. They would even be more important if a disaster were to strike where any of us live. To @m_lines point, many times the internet goes down in a disaster situation and if you store all of your records digitally, you may not be able to access them. It is a good idea to maintain them in a safe and then have a photocopy back up somewhere.


                • #9
                  Really good article, thank you. It cannot be stressed how important it is to make sure all of your documents are secured safely. You may think that where you live is not prone to disaster, but it could happen to anyone. When it does, you want to be ready. Word about these simple preparation tips needs to be spread to everyone, not just disaster prone areas. This is an easy way of preventing losses in a disaster.


                  • #10
                    Wow !! That article was so helpful. I really appreciate you posting it. We live in Florida and you just never know when a tropical storm or hurricane will just come out of no where. The very first year we moved here from central NY there were 3 hurricanes and we were not prepared to say the least. After that nightmare, we really learned that being prepared for any disaster can mean the difference between life and death. I will be using this information from this article when we update our plan next month.

                    Thank you again for sharing !


                    • #11
                      When a disaster occurs, it is very difficult to think about protecting your valuables and important documents. Only after everything has calmed down, we start thinking about the documents. Hence, one must be very much aware of the situations and take the necessary precautions before itself. I think it is important to follow the steps mentioned in the above article and take care of your belongings.


                      • #12
                        Wow, this is a great list I am definitely going to save it for future reference. I should put a copy of all my documents in a safe spot. Lots of these important papers you forget about until they're gone and you need them! Thank you for the suggestions.


                        • #13
                          Thank you for taking the time to post these tips. Unfortunately, some people don't bother to think about their documents at all when they're preparing for a disaster, and this can cost them dearly later when it comes to having to replace all of them. Often, you can't really remember just how much you've lost until it really comes to it and you notice. You should always keep them as high as possible, and make a copy of any that it is possible with. Keeping them in a safe can be a good idea, but you need to make sure that it is waterproof, because you would lose your documents if there was a flood and the safe was in a danger zone. Ultimately you do have the chance to protect yourself from losing your documents in a disaster, but the best thing that you can do is to make sure you are prepared and careful.


                          • #14
                            Thanks for all these tips! I don't really have that many important documents except for my IDs, school records/diploma, bank records, and birth certificate. I have scanned copies of these already even before Typhoon Haiyan struck. As for making lists, I have a list of everything I own and should bring in case a disaster strikes. I have it on my journal, and I have a copy on my Google Drive, so I can access it anywhere.


                            • #15
                              Thank you for posting this. We, who are residing in flood prone areas had our share of document damages. There is always the first time, and we hope that people will be educated enough to do the necessary back ups should a calamity happen. We have secured our hard copy documents in a single container so it will be easy to lift in case a really major flood happens. Having digital copies is a must these days and we have also done that. The more recent ones have not been scanned yet. Your post reminded me to do just that ASAP. Thanks again.