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Documents you need when disaster strikes

Flooded neighborhood
Highlights
  • After a disaster, it's important to have key documents, cash at hand.
  • Safety-deposit boxes may not be the best option for storage.
  • Keep proof of valuables so you have it when filing insurance claims.

Insurance » Hurricanes » Documents You Need When Disaster Strikes

When fire roared through Adelaide Zindler's San Diego neighborhood in the middle of the night, her first thought was to alert an elderly neighbor. The last thing on her mind was the whereabouts of financial records stored in her home.

"I was thinking family and I was thinking friends and I was thinking safety," Zindler says.

Uprooted from home for days, and unsure where other relatives were, she and her husband needed a month or two "before we got to a place where we were thinking about paperwork again," she says.

By that point, they were late on their mortgage payment. The financial institution was unforgiving, and the couple's credit score took a hit.

The Zindlers' money woes mirror those of others whose lives are abruptly turned upside down because of a disaster. But it doesn't have to be that way.

Financial advisers say people who identify and prepare key documents long before calamity strikes can avoid unnecessary damage to their personal finances in the wake of a fire, flood, hurricane or other disaster.

What you need

All homeowners and renters should have a list of "must haves" and "like to haves" -- items they will need, or want, after a disaster, says Mitchell Freedman, founder of MFAC Financial Advisors in Westlake Village, Calif., and an editor of the American Red Cross' "Disaster Recovery: A Guide to Financial Issues."

Key documents to have at hand include:

  • Mortgage documents or rental agreements.
  • Homeowners, renters and automobile insurance policies.
  • Financial statements and account numbers.
  • Copies of prescriptions for medications.
  • Tax records.

Freedman also suggests having a small stash of cash at hand. If the electricity is out, credit cards won't work for purchases.

Donna Childs, a former reinsurance industry executive, was living within sight of the World Trade Center when the towers collapsed Sept. 11, 2001. Hers was the only residential neighborhood evacuated, and she was kept out of her home for a couple of months.

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Because of her business background, Childs already had all her personal and business documents scanned in and stored online remotely when she had to flee with just an overnight bag.

At a time like that, "you shouldn't be thinking about documents, you should be thinking about safety," says Childs, who later wrote the book "Prepare for the Worst, Plan for the Best: Disaster Preparedness and Recovery for Small Businesses."

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