Over a dozen Category 5 storms have swept up the Atlantic since 2003, most often in the months of August, September, and October. Although we’ve been recording Category 5 hurricanes for nearly a century, the past 16 years account for over a third of the 35 currently recorded Category 5 hurricanes in history.
As numerous factors come together, we can expect to see storms of such strength occur more frequently, alongside other disasters. California is at an increased risk of wildfires as temperatures continue to rise year after year. Other parts of the country see the risk of other disasters enfolding, from extreme winters and summers to stronger winds, longer droughts, and bigger storm surges.
While disasters have always been a fact of life, it’s more critical to prepare for them now than ever. Food, shelter, and safety are the biggest priority when it comes to preparing for a major disaster, but there are other considerations that should be made in times of calm and quiet – particularly, document protection.
Why Is Document Protection Important?
There’s little sense in scrambling for important papers when it’s clear you and your family are in danger – but you can’t do without them, either. Rather than carrying around the fear of finding yourself between a rock and a hard place, taking into consideration ways to keep your documents safe and accessible in the event of a disaster is important.
Our documents are more than just pieces of paper – they’re critical for identification, for filing insurance claims after the fact, for getting proper and complete medical attention, for proving your citizenship, and more. Losing just one of several vital documents can cause extreme stress in the long-term, as they’re not easily replaced. However, these documents must remain both accessible and safe.
Instead of tucking them away in the attic or storing them in a cabinet at home, it’s important to take a couple simple measures to ensure that your documents remain intact and recoverable in the case of a sudden emergency or disaster.
Important Family Documents
The first set of documents that you should consider keeping safe are so-called family documents – crucial documents needed to verify personal information, identify loved ones and pets, requisition new documents, and set up residences somewhere else. These documents include:
- Birth certificates
- Marriage papers
- Divorce papers
- Adoption papers
- Social Security documents
- Driver’s license
- Pet documents & microchip number
- Citizenship or naturalization documents
- Visa documents
- Prenuptial agreements
It’s also a good idea to keep recent photographs of everyone in the family nearby, either physically or on your phone. In the event that you somehow lose each other, you can use these photographs to get help from the authorities.
Important Estate Planning Documents
Estate planning documents are expensive and time-consuming to draft and make, so you should always have copies stored nearby in a safe and secure location. These documents ensure that, should anything happen to you, then your assets and belongings will be distributed to your kin as you deemed fit. Estate planning documents to keep safe include:
These documents can also transfer durable power of attorney to specified loved ones and trusted individuals should you be alive, yet unable to communicate. Estate planning documents and other legal documents may also be important to verify your ownership over certain lands or properties after the disaster has unfolded.
Important Financial Documents
Credit card information, debit card pins, bank account info, contact details for your investment advisor – these are just a few potential pieces of information that you should keep safe, and nearby. A notebook is a good place to keep bank access and card pins, if you’re worried about forgetting them, but it’s critical to keep the notebook in a secure place, like a fireproof safe. Information you should consider keeping include:
- Bank account access information
- Tax information
- Pay stubs and cheques
- Life insurance or retirement account information
- A list of your monthly and annual bills and obligations
Important Healthcare Documents
Medical documents are important because they often help give medical professionals critical insight in how to treat you, especially if you’re not able to communicate. Doctors need to know what medication you’re taking, what you’re allergic to, what kind of medical and family history you have, what vaccines you’ve had, and so on. Here are a few documents you should keep for each member of the household:
- Allergy information
- Immunization records
- Medical insurance information
- Summarized medical past
- Medication list/prescriptions
Keeping Important Documents Safe
FEMA recommends that individuals and families focus on the most important documents first, keeping originals and copies in safe places. Speaking of safe places, a home safe is the most basic and useful form of protection for your sensitive documents. Make sure to get a disaster-proof safe – these are document protection safes that keep records safe from water damage, fire damage, and earthquakes. Sturdy safes may be a bit pricier than the cheaper alternatives, but it’s worth the protection.
Another document protection option is to store your records in a safety deposit box. While not easily accessible, this way they are in a secure off-site location should anything happen to your home.
While an additional precaution rather than an effective solution, consider making digital copies of all relevant and important documents. You can store these on an external hard drive, but an even better solution would be to store them on an encrypted cloud storage service. Privacy-focused storage services include SpiderOak, MEGA, and Tresorit.
If you keep documents and pictures on your phone, back them up to a secure cloud storage service of your choice. Be sure to keep your phone secure, as well – that means making use of fingerprint ID, password/document protection, or a different phone lock.
Finally, it’s a good idea to make copies of certain documents and store them with a lawyer. Your estate planning attorney should have copies of all your estate planning documents, for example, and if you are working with an immigration lawyer to maintain your status or work towards citizenship, they should have copies of all relevant immigration documents as well.