The recent run of Northern California wildfires is a vivid reminder that disaster can strike anytime, anywhere.
And it’s not just a wildfire that threatens our safety and financial well-being. It could be a flood, earthquake, landslide, or even a home or office break-in.
Regardless, the old adage applies: Be prepared. Here are some ways:
Take the video
One important precaution is a room-by-room inventory of the contents of your home. In case of fire, flooding – or even a break-in – you want a clear record of your home’s contents, including the garage and backyard, in order to make an insurance claim.
Sacramento CPA Perry Ghilarducci learned that the hard way. About 20 years ago, he and his wife returned home from a weekend vacation to find their home had been burglarized. Thieves had carted away computers, electronics, a TV – and drove off with all of it in the family car.
“It’s amazing how much stuff you accumulate but don’t realize,” said Ghilarducci, owner of Avaunt Ltd. CPAs & Consultants, who said he and his wife “struggled to remember everything we had in the house.” Trying to make a complete inventory for an insurance claim, they did their best from memory.
To avoid that time-consuming headache, there’s an easier solution: make a home inventory video.
“On a spare day, say when it’s 105 outside, take your digital camera and walk through your home. Do a room-by-room narrative,” said George Yee, an Elk Grove homeowners’ insurance agent.
Open cupboards and closets, pull out drawers. Zoom in for close-ups of valuables. Put your hand or a ruler up to give scale to smaller items, he said. If you have a valuable collection – coins, guns, jewelry, collectibles, etc. – spread them out on a solid, dark surface, such as a dining room table to photograph.
Wherever possible, state the value or provide photos of documents that back up the purchase price, said Yee.
When you’re done, make a duplicate copy of your camera’s digital chip and store in a safe place, such as safe deposit box, that’s away from your home. Do the same room-by-room inventory with the contents of your office.
If you don’t have a digital camera, you can also create a home inventory video using your smartphone, Yee said. Be sure to store it digitally somewhere safe, such as a “cloud-based” storage device.
“The key is to just do it … and be able to keep it someplace where you can retrieve it later,” if necessary, said Yee, a 28-year veteran of the insurance business.
Don’t call home
“The desire to call loved ones after an emergency or disaster is natural,” said the Safe America Foundation, a nonprofit that launched a “Text First. Talk Second.” campaign after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks in New York City and other locations.
In emergency situations, too many frantic cellphone calls often overwhelm wireless phone service and can prevent essential 911 calls from going through, the foundation warns.
“Just a single one-minute phone call takes up the same bandwidth as 800 short text messages,” it says on its website, SafeAmericaPrepared.org.
Instead, if you need to contact family or friends, send a text message. It can be as simple as, “R You OK?” or “IM OK.” The idea is to quickly get in touch, without needlessly jamming essential phone lines.
Have a family plan
When disaster strikes, it’s easy for families to become separated – by work, school or other circumstances – and face the panic of being unable to communicate with one another. Emergency officials recommend that you sit down together and create a family emergency-response plan. Designate a location where you will meet in case you’re displaced from home, such as a familiar destination, a family cabin or another home of friends or relatives. Name an out-of-town or out-of-state contact who can relay messages. Make sure your kids know how to contact you or a designated relative.
On the Ready.gov website, there are simple wallet-sized cards that you can fill out for each child or family member, listing emergency contacts for neighbors, an out-of-town contact and the family’s designated meeting place in case of an emergency. You can fill them out, clip and save for each family member’s wallet, purse or backpack.
Have an EFFAK?
In emergency-preparedness jargon, that’s an Emergency Financial First Aid Kit.
Regardless of the size of your income or bank accounts, the EFFAK is essentially one place where you assemble a copy of all your pertinent financial documents. The idea was born in the aftermath of 9/11, when federal emergency-response officials and a nonprofit, Operation Hope Inc., realized that Americans needed a tool to ensure “financial stability in the wake or an emergency or evacuation.”
“Emergencies often come when we least expect it, yet many of us do not think to prepare our financial interests in advance,” said the Federal Emergency Management Agency on its website, www.FEMA.gov.
The website has an official EFFAK list of essential financial documents that should be included: home mortgage or property records, bank accounts, power of attorney forms, divorce/marriage/birth certificates, passport, insurance policies, credit card accounts.
If your house burns down, these documents can be useful in speeding up the process for applying for loans and sorting out financial assistance.
It’s recommended that the documents be kept in a waterproof, grab-and-go box or binder. Ideally, it’s portable enough to stash in a backpack or tuck under your arm on the way out the door.
Of course, an emergency or natural disaster isn’t limited by time, date or season. It could happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Taking a few steps now can minimize the financial and emotional upheaval none of us wants to face in an emergency.