These are the documents you need when disaster strikes

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No matter where you live, it’s likely that your area may be susceptible to various natural disasters, such as earthquakes, wildfires, tornadoes or hurricanes. There are also other unanticipated events like the COVID-19 pandemic that can disrupt and upend your life. While many people go their entire life without being catastrophically impacted by a disaster, when disaster does strike, the time to prepare has passed.

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

Before the disaster: Gather up the documents

It’s a good idea to know where your key documents are, and gather them in one place when the sun is shining — not when winds are howling at 100 miles per hour or when your home is in the direct path of a 10-foot storm surge. When disaster strikes, you likely won’t have time to search through your house for these key personal and financial documents:

  • Mortgage documents or rental agreements
  • Homeowners (including flood and wind coverage), renters and automobile insurance policies
  • Financial statements and account numbers
  • Medications and copies of prescriptions
  • Tax records
  • Driver’s license, passports, birth certificates and Social Security cards
  • Credit, debit and medical insurance cards.
  • Insurance policy numbers and contact information for your insurance agent

You may also want to consider having a small stash of cash at hand. If power is out, credit cards won’t work for purchases and you won’t be able to get cash from the ATM.

Create a go bag

It’s also a good idea to prepare a “go bag” in case you need to leave your house at a moment’s notice. Janet Thomas, a senior claims specialist with CBIZ Insurance Services, says she would grab her “strong box, which contains birth and marriage certificates, social security cards, property deeds and passports.”

Consider preparing a small duffel bag or backpack for each member of your family. In addition to the valuable documents and information listed above, the bag can include clothes, emergency supplies and some non-perishable food or snacks to help you survive 48 to 72 hours if you aren’t able to quickly return to your home.

Keep copies of your vital documents

You may not want to store these documents in a bank safe deposit box, however. The reason: a bank could be destroyed or inaccessible after a disaster.

Instead, consider storing your vital data on a portable computer hard drive so you can grab it and go. Another option is using online cloud storage and sharing the password with a trusted family member or friend who can access the account in case of an emergency.

Some banks now offer virtual safe deposit boxes online, to protect documents, photos and videos.

Have proof of your valuables

In addition to having access to key documents, when filing insurance claims, it’s important to have proof of your valuables you might not be able to take with you during a disaster.

Brian Bradley, a personal risk advisor with CBIZ, offers the following recommendation: “For any valuable (i.e. jewelry, fine arts, furs, firearms, silverware or other collectibles), you will want to retain the bill of sale or receipt. In adding the item to your scheduled personal property or blanket valuables coverage, you can forward the bill of sale or receipt to your insurance agent.”

Sending the information to your insurance agent serves two purposes — it allows your agent to get a full description of the item and also lets them keep that documentation in their files. Bradley also recommends that you should get large-ticket items appraised every three to five years.

Tyler Betts, an independent insurance agent with Energy Insurance Agency, recommends shooting a video of every room of your home. “Open drawers, storage boxes, etc.,” Betts says. “Take pictures of collectibles like firearms, paintings and coins. If possible, take pictures of any identifying numbers like serial numbers or lot numbers.” Betts then recommends storing the video in a fireproof safe, either off-site or in the cloud.

During the storm

If you do find yourself in the middle of a disaster, it may be too late to prepare, but there are a few other things that can help put you in a good spot. Once you and your family are in a place where you are safe physically, it’s a good idea to immediately contact your insurance agent. They can give you details on your policy and let you know what to expect in the coming days and weeks.

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Written by
Dan Miller
Points and Miles Expert Contributor
Dan Miller is a contributing writer for Bankrate. Dan writes about loans, home equity and debt management.