As I continue to watch the horrific news reports of the hundreds of thousands of people displaced from their homes because of Hurricane Katrina, I wonder what I would do if my home were in imminent danger of being destroyed by a fire, hurricane or some other natural disaster.
What would I grab? Could I quickly put my hands on the important documents I would need once my main concern wasn't fleeing to safety? Could you?
Thankfully, my husband has an awesome filing system. Every important document is neatly tucked away in a folder in our home office file cabinet. But guess what? It would take a few hours to assemble key paperwork into one box we could take with us if we had to evacuate in a hurry.
In an emergency, it's unlikely you would be able to pack your file cabinet. Or worse, sort though the piles of files stacked in a corner somewhere in your house.
Right now, the families that have been displaced are focusing on their basic needs -- shelter and food. However, they'll soon face a new challenge -- acquiring pay stubs, insurance papers, bank statements and any of the other financial records that are the bane of our modern-day existence. Many of the businesses where these families worked have been destroyed and so too, possibly, have their files.
All of us should use Katrina and the havoc this historic hurricane has wreaked as a lesson to get our financial house in order.
To that end, the Financial Planning Association put together the following list of tips that I think are very helpful for the pre-disaster planning we all should do:
* Prepare an evacuation box that is fireproof, lockable and light enough to carry in an emergency. Keep all your important financial documents in this box, including some cash or traveler's checks; insurance policies; extra checks; a copy your driver's license; Social Security number (or the card itself); bank, investment account and credit card account numbers; and legal documents (such as wills, marriage and birth certificates, titles to your home and vehicles).
* Have backup for your important financial documents. "If you live in an area like New Orleans and you're looking at that level of disaster where your house is not only destroyed but you are going to have to sustain yourself on whatever you can carry, I don't think documents are something you're going to try and carry," said Arthur Stein, a certified financial planner and vice president of First Financial Group of Bethesda. "I can't imagine suggesting that in such a situation, when you might not have enough food or water, that people grab a box."
So in addition to, or in lieu of, a box containing your important files, Stein recommends making photocopies of your documents and placing them in a safe-deposit box or giving them to a trusted relative or friend who does not live in the same disaster-prone area that you do. "Personally, I've scanned all my important documents and keep them on a disk," Stein said.
* Don't forget to make a list of household items. Include photographs or a videotape of your possessions, especially expensive things.
* Make a list of the financial professionals you need to contact in an emergency.
Now is the time to also determine if you have enough insurance coverage. For example, do you have disability insurance, and are you adequately covered? If you were injured in a natural disaster, would you be able to live off your savings?
"In general, very few people are prepared for any kind of disaster, including disability, which doesn't require a hurricane," Stein said. Buy enough disability insurance to replace between 60 and 70 percent of your income.
* Obtain life insurance, or reassess whether you have enough. And what about your homeowner's insurance coverage? Do you have flood insurance? The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30. The West Coast's flooding season typically spans November through March and results in millions of dollars in damage for those residents each year, according to the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).
Your basic homeowner's policy does not cover flooding. Even if you're not in a high-flood-risk area, you may still need protection. Twenty to 25 percent of all flood insurance claims are filed in low- to moderate-risk areas, reports the NFIP.
If your community participates in the NFIP, you can purchase flood insurance from a licensed private insurance company or through an independent property and casualty insurance agent in your state. For information on flood insurance, go to www.floodsmart.gov.
Be sure to buy replacement insurance for your home and its contents. If you're a renter, buy renter's insurance, because the insurance your landlord carries does not cover damage to your personal possessions.
Although any flood insurance policy you buy must be in place for 30 days before coverage takes effect, flooding can happen any time of year.
What happened on the Gulf Coast is horrible. But this disaster underscores the need for all of us to prepare for the unexpected.
* On the air: Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and online at www.npr.org.
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