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Protect Your Important Papers and Property

How to make sure your valuables survive the storm

En español  |  Devastating floods, killer tornados, wind-fueled wildfires, disastrous hurricanes. Are you prepared for an episode of Mother Nature Gone Wild, especially if it forces an evacuation from your home? Here's what to do now:

Avoid the paper chase

You may have mere minutes to evacuate, and that's no time to be running around looking for must-have paperwork. So before disaster strikes, collect and copy it.

Keep one set of original or photocopied records in a portable file system or lock box that will allow grab-and-go convenience if you evacuate. Make a backup set of electronic copies and save them on CDs, DVDs or external drives that should be stored in another safe location, such as a bank safe deposit box or the distant home of a trusted friend or relative. If you have a remote back-up service, you can keep the copies there as well. Going forward, be sure to keep records updated.

The documents should include:

Personal: Birth and marriage certificates, divorce decrees, passports, diploma and military documents, Social Security card, and photocopies of your driver's license and the front and back of all credit cards. Also include phone numbers of friends and relatives, because numbers stored on your cellphone may be inaccessible if its battery dies and you can't recharge.

Home and property: Home deed, mortgage and closing statements; car titles; insurance policies or at the minimum, policy number and contact information for your agent and insurer; appraisal documents for jewelry and other valuables.

• Estate: Your will, executor and estate planning paperwork, including names and phone numbers.

Medical: Medicare or health insurance cards, prescription records (especially for medications for chronic conditions such as diabetes and asthma), and contact information for your doctors.

• Financial: Stock and bond certificates; IRA or 401(k) account numbers; bank statements; and tax records, including W2s and important receipts.

Prove your possessions

To minimize possible insurance claim hassles, take and safeguard photographs or video of the contents of each room — including the garage — as proof that you own possessions that might be lost or damaged. "An advantage of videotaping possessions is you can narrate, such as 'I bought this table at this store, at this time, it's this brand and cost me this much,'" suggests Jeanne Salvatore of the Insurance Information Institute.

The Insurance Information Institute website has free online software called Know Your Stuff to help you conduct a home inventory. It can be accessed from any computer or via an app for iPhone and Android phones. You may also want to use the Internal Revenue Service's "Casualty, Disaster and Theft Loss Workbook" (PDF) for estimated fair market value figures of your items lost.

Read it before you need it

The biggest mistake made by disaster-devastated homeowners? "Not knowing beforehand what their policies cover — and don't," says Salvatore. So each year, review your homeowner's policy and ask questions. With replacement cost policies, you're covered for today's cost of replacing damaged possessions. Cash value policies cover items at their depreciated value, which means your reimbursement check will be lower.

And while tornado and fire damage are covered by most homeowner policies, supplemental insurance is needed for earthquakes and flood. (Gauge the flood risk and policy cost for your address at FloodSmart.gov.)

Flood coverage activates 30 days after your purchase date.

Keep a disaster kit

It's a good idea too to have a kit of emergency supplies ready to go — things like flashlights, batteries, manual can-opener, etc., and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a list for what should be in your disaster kit. You'll also find tips for coping before, during and after a disaster.

Stuff that will come in handy

If flooding and heavy rain are the danger, get locking plastic storage bins or garbage bags to store heirlooms, photo albums and clothing high and dry. Should you need to wade through water, zipper-type sandwich or gallon-sized plastic bags can keep papers, medications and cash dry. You'll want to keep some cash on hand, as ATMs may not work following a disaster.

Other low-cost items worth buying: a corded telephone, which unlike cordless models, will still work if the power goes out; flexible cable or metal strapping to secure large appliances (especially your hot water heater, so it doesn't topple over during tornados or hurricanes and cause more flooding); and childproof latches to hold cabinets closed so they don't spill their contents.

Riding out the storm

If you're a two-car household and evacuating in one vehicle, what do you do with the other? If flooding's a threat, the ideal place is an upper floor of a multilevel indoor parking structure. Some GPS devices provide elevations for other higher ground locations, notes FEMA's Darryl Madden. If an earthquake or hurricane is looming, park away from buildings and trees.

What about utility service?

If you are evacuating your home, Madden recommends shutting off water, gas and electrical service. But, if your home has a sump pump that operates on electricity, you'll need to leave the power on to prevent a flood.

If you do get hit by a natural or weather disaster, you may get relief on your income taxes. IRS Publication 547 explains how provisions of the tax code might affect you. You can also call the agency's hotline for disaster-related tax issues, 1-866-562-5227.

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.

Updated October 2012

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