Last-Minute Disaster Preparation

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If you're one of the 60 million people in the path of Irene, or know someone who is, here's the last-minute guide to saving your financial life.

For those of you in the path of Irene, take heart. As a long-time resident of South Florida, this is a road I’ve traveled before, and probably will again before the season is over.

Preparing for a hurricane is a frantic time, and the most important thing you can do now is obviously to make sure you and yours are out of harm’s way. But if you’ve got a spare minute or two, protect your financial life to the best of your ability. Here’s the way to get the most result from the fewest minutes.

  • Get important originals out of harm’s way. Take difficult-to-replace papers and put them in a water-proof container. Keep it where you can grab it and run. First priority is things with raised seals and original signatures: your car titles, your passport, your home deed – you get the idea.
  • Grab your camcorder. Shoot video of everything in your house, and I mean everything. Open drawers and cabinets. Go in closets. This is your last-minute inventory of everything you own: If you need to file an insurance claim, it’s going to be the smartest thing you’ve ever done. If you can send that video digitally to a friend far away, great. If you can’t, make sure it stays with you. 
  • Get cash. It’s hard to understand what life without electricity is like. But ask any Floridian whose done it for weeks: it’s not pretty.  When there’s no electricity, there’s no ATM and the credit card machines at the store may not work.
  • Get gas. There’s also no gas without electricity. This is obviously most useful if you have a generator, because without working traffic lights, you won’t be doing a lot of driving.
  • If you have time: Scan important papers and store them online. This includes just about everything: Deeds, titles, wills, birth certificates, marriage, divorce and adoption papers, insurance policies, mortgage documents, social security cards, drivers licenses, passports, tax returns: anything that matters.  While digital copies of some of these things won’t replace the originals (passports and drivers licenses, for example) at least you’ll have a copy of the numbers on them. Store it all in cyberspace where no disaster can find it. If scanning stacks of paper seems too onerous or time-consuming (your mortgage or insurance policies, for example) just scan the first page – it’s better than nothing.
  • If you have time: Get a second cell phone. Go to the cell phone store and get the cheapest possible phone that will hold your SIM card. Charge it and put it in your waterproof container. This serves two purposes: you’ve got a fully-charged back-up phone, and you’ve got a replacement if your primary phone gets wet. (See What To Do if You Drop Your Phone in Water.)
  • Put your insurance company’s phone number in your cell phone. As soon as cell service resumes, your first calls will be to your family and friends, but the next one will be to your insurance company. First come, first served.

That’s the down-and-dirty of protecting your financial life. There’s plenty of other articles online with more detail, and if you have time, check out a few. (Here’s another one from us.) But if you don’t, do as many of the things in the list above as you can. And if you’re not in Irene’s path but know someone who is, forward this article to them.

Also for those not in the path of this particular peril, remember: It’s only a matter of time. Why not take a few minutes this weekend to prepare your own plan? It’s definitely time well spent.

Stacy Johnson

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