If you’ve been keeping up with the news lately, I’m sure you have heard about the Camp Fire in Northern California.
Fires are not at all uncommon in California (and many other parts of the world) but the intensity of this fire was very unique. In this particular fire, the residents of Paradise were given minutes to evacuate their homes.
Yes, you read that right…minutes!!
When your life is endangered in such a manner, the last thing you’d think about is which belongings to take with you or which to leave behind. The priority becomes your life, your pets, and your neighbors.
In this scenario, most people were unprepared and completely caught off guard. They had no time to grab anything but themselves and flee as quickly as possible with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.
As the days pass and the news shed light on the catastrophic devastation of the fire, an entire community is now confronted with the struggle of rebuilding their entire lives from scratch. To make things even more difficult, most people have to go through the process of retrieving all their important documents and certificates to receive any government benefits and compensation for their losses.
This got me thinking about my personal preparedness plan. If I were given minutes to evacuate my home, would I have all my important documents easily accessible to take with me? Until earlier this week, my answer was NO. If you’re reading this and your answer is also NO, then you’ve come to the right place.
Below I have created a comprehensive list of documents that are critical to keeping intact for the rest of your life. I’m certain that a post-disaster recovery would be much simpler if these documents were protected.
Which documents should I keep safe during an emergency?
Keeping your documents organized is key to finding them when you really need them. I have created a printable checklist to help you get started in organizing all your paperwork in a three-ring binder or folder of your choice (continue reading to get the list).
Remember to take account of each person and pet living in your home. Some people would prefer to organize their documents by using separate folders for each member of the household since it could make it easier to retrieve documents. Whichever way you choose to do it, these documents can be broken down into 8 sections: personal, pets, home and property, estate planning, business, medical, financial and government.
You can store them any you want but keeping them in their appropriate section will save you much time and stress when you need to retrieve them in the future. I acknowledge there are a lot of documents in this list and not all of them will apply to you. For the documents that do apply, I recommend you get at least copies of each one because it’s better to be safe than sorry. 🙂
- Birth certificate
- Social security card
- Passports and proof of citizenship
- Green card or proof of legal residency
- Copies of driver’s license and ID’s
- Marriage / divorce certificates
- Child custody papers
- Adoption documents
- Life insurance policy (include your policy number and insurance company contact information)
- Student loans paperwork
- Death certificate of a deceased family member (you may need these for legal purposes)
- List of usernames and passwords for personal accounts
- Address book with a list of important contact’s numbers and emails
- Family photos, letters and irreplaceable papers that you don’t want to lose
- Funeral instructions
- Vet records including proof of vaccinations
- Current prescriptions and dosage
- Chip ID numbers
Real Estate and Personal Property
- Proof of ownership of all property, such as mortgage documents
- Vehicle / RV / boat titles and registration
- Photos and videos of your home (including the garage), and the inside of your RV and boat.
- Home remodeling / building invoices and proof of payment
- Appraisal documents / receipts of valuable items you own such as collectibles, antiques, artwork and jewelry
- Lease and rental contracts
- Copies of the bills mailed to your home, such as utilities, cable, WiFi and phone bills
- Insurance policies, such as homeowners / renters / vehicle / boat / insurance specific to natural disasters (include your policy number and insurance company contact information)
- Powers of attorneys
- Employment and business contracts
- Backup of computer files and business software (including accounting)
- Business tax and payroll returns
- List of usernames and passwords for business accounts
- Proof of employment benefits
- Vaccination records
- Records of current prescription medications and dosage
- Health insurance (include your policy number and insurance company contact information)
- Dental records, if possible
- Fingerprint records, if possible
- Copies (front and back) of credit and debit cards
- List of all bank documents: including checking, savings, brokerage and 401(k) retirement account information
- Records and proof of financial investments
- Stocks and bonds certificates
- State and federal tax returns. According to the IRS, you must “keep records for 3 years from the date you filed your original return or 2 years from the date you paid the tax, whichever is later, if you file a claim for credit or refund after you file your return. Keep records for 7 years if you file a claim for a loss from worthless securities or bad debt deduction.”
- Proof of government benefits, including disability and social security
- Military documents and discharge papers (including DD214 and other separation papers)
How should I store my important documents?
It’s recommended that you store two copies of all your paperwork, in case one gets damaged. Store the original documents in one location and copies of the originals in another. You may choose to store all the originals in the bank’s security vault (for security reasons, of course) and the copies in a lock box hidden (yet accessible to you) in your house or a trusted relative/friend's house.
If you prefer to digitally save your documents, you can back everything up on an external hard drive.
Another digital option is to store these documents on a Cloud-based service, like Google Drive, iCloud or Dropbox. This is very handy if you’re away from home when an evacuation occurs or in an immediate situation like the Camp Fire where you don’t have enough time to grab any valuables.
Google claims that anything uploaded to Google Drive is safe and secure but you will have to use your best judgment on that one, as well as any other Cloud storage service.
To facilitate the process of scanning documents to the Cloud or an external hard drive, you can use several apps. Note that each app has different functionalities, so you’ll have to choose which one works best for you.
The following are some great options to start. For iPhone and iPad, you can use CamScanner (free), Genius Scan (free), Scanner App (free) or Scanner Pro ($3.99). For Android, you can use Microsoft Office Lens (free), Adobe Scan (free), Tiny Scanner (free), Document Scanner (free), or CamScanner (free). Most of the free services include a Pro version at an extra cost but for basic scanning, it might not be necessary to purchase them.
Again, it’s up to you to decide whether or not the Cloud is safe enough for your private and personal documents. I can only say it’s an easy way to access what you need right from your phone…that is, if you have access to the internet!
Also, note that some places require proof of certain documents in paper only while others will accept a digital copy.
How can I protect my paper documents?
In the recent Camp Fire, I noticed most homeowners owned a safe but every single safe was completely destroyed. The heat of the wildfire exceeded the heat limit for each of these safes, so everything left inside was destroyed.
When choosing a container to store your documents in at home, make sure you carefully read the advertised ratings. Most home safes are specially designed to withstand high temperatures (fireproof) and some also claim to be waterproof. This is true to a degree.
Since safes are built from different materials, they will also differ in regards to their temperature and water limits. Learn more about what safe ratings mean and how to choose the right safe here.
We typically evacuate with the hope (and maybe even denial) that our homes will still be in perfect standing when we return. Many people will be blessed to return to untouched homes, others to damaged ones, and some unfortunately to nothing more than rubble.
This list may look long and tedious to most but if you’re ever faced with a mandatory evacuation order, you won’t have to worry about scrambling around your home looking for these papers. It’s also much easier to find these documents if you know they’re in the same folder.
The saddest thing about the Camp Fire, in my opinion, is that people didn’t just lose their homes but they lost their entire way of life, community, and immediate comforts. This scenario is also true for those who are affected by major natural disasters all over the world. (Think about the mass destruction that was caused by Hurricane Katrina and Irma, for example. Rebuilding these cities takes a long time!)
The last thing you want to be doing after an emergency is having to start your life from absolute zero. With these documents in order, the process of rebuilding your future will be much simpler and peaceful.
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