Liz Pulliam Weston

The Basics

5 ways to save your papers in a natural disaster

The last thing you want to worry about as you flee a fire or hurricane is finding your important papers. Here are tech-savvy ways to rescue them in advance.

By Liz Pulliam Weston

All of the natural disasters of recent years -- hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and more -- should have sensitized us all to the need for an evacuation plan.

So here's a spot quiz: What's the single most important document in your home, the one you should retrieve at all costs in a natural disaster? Is it your insurance policy? Your house deed? Your birth certificate? Your will?

It's a trick question, of course. There is no such document. No piece of paper is worth risking your life, especially when so much of the paperwork in our lives is easily recreated. Your priority in any natural disaster should be gathering your family members and getting the heck out.

Types of important documents

"Almost all (documents) are reproducible," said San Diego financial planner Larry Steckler, who should know: The home of his ex-wife, and those of two clients, burned down in the wildfires there in 2005. "You can go to the county courthouse or wherever. It's a pain, but it's not that big a deal."

Yet most articles about evacuation plans include a fairly long and detailed list of paperwork you're somehow supposed to remember to grab on your way out the door. In addition to the documents listed above, I've seen lists that included:

  • Your last three years of tax returns

  • Marriage, birth and death certificates, divorce decrees and adoption records

  • Copies of all of your medical records

  • Your retirement-account statements

  • Warranties and receipts for all major purchases

  • Your most recent pay stub

  • Your unpaid bills

  • Home-improvement records

  • Estate-planning records

  • Recent credit card statements

  • Appraisals for all of your jewelry

  • A complete household inventory

It's possible you'll have time to gather all of this in an emergency. Steckler and his wife did; they had three hours between the time he woke up smelling smoke at their Scripps Ranch home and the time they evacuated.

They stuffed 12 plastic packing crates, which happened to be in the garage, with photo albums, family memorabilia and important documents. Steckler's wife even had time to tour their home with a camcorder, recording their possessions. The video would have been helpful in filing an insurance claim, but it turned out not to be necessary: The Stecklers' home was spared.

Problems with 'grab and go' boxes

You shouldn't count on having the luxury of time, though, which is why many experts recommend creating an "evacuation box" in advance with copies of all your important documents. But for most of us, these evacuation boxes have some fatal flaws:

  • Keeping such a box updated and current is a pain. It's more likely life will intervene, and you'll find yourself with documents for insurers, jobs and spouses you no longer have.

  • You might not be able to retrieve the box. A press pass got me past the police barricades when the 1993 Laguna Beach fires threatened my home there. I had enough time to toss some photo albums, documents and a childhood teddy bear into my car before speeding off to cover the story. But hundreds of homeowners were prevented from reaching their houses in the fast-moving conflagration and lost everything. (A last-minute change in wind direction spared my house, thanks for asking, but the fire consumed nearly 400 homes before it was contained.)

  • Accessible to you means accessible to a criminal. If you do compile this information in one place, you've just provided an identity thief with everything needed to ruin your financial life -- all in one handy carry-away tote. I was stunned recently when a professional organizer on an HGTV show presented her clients with a beribboned "grab and go" box with all of their important documents, including Social Security cards. The organizer placed the box carefully atop the television, so anyone who watched the show will know right where to go to swipe this family's financial life.

You can always lock this stuff away in a safe, of course, but that kind of negates the convenience that an evacuation box is supposed to offer. Small, portable fire-resistant safes can help, but they may not fully protect documents from intense flames. And, of course, they're easier to steal.

5 tech-savvy options

I won't discourage you from creating a "grab and go" box if you want to, but there are other practical ways to prepare for disaster. A little planning, and a little technology, can go a long way.

Here are five things you can do now:

Safeguard family photos. Ask victims of fires what they regret the most, and it's typically the loss of family photos and memorabilia.

Video on MSN Money

© Steve Cole/Photodisc/Getty Images
What about papers you no longer need?
Good Housekeeping tests the best shredders.
There's probably no way to make a copy of Grandma's quilt, but you can make sure most of your photo memories survive. Take those old negatives you were planning to organize one day, stuff them in a box and mail it to your mother, or some other trusted person who lives out of your area. Then burn some CDs with your digital photos and do the same. Scan any iconic family photos that don't have negatives, and make CDs of those as well. (If you don't have a scanner, ask a friend who does, or have them professionally done.)

The key is to get your copies out of your immediate geographic area; the further away, the better.

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