This is the second installment of our two-part series on steps you should take right now to protect your interests in the event of a disaster. (For Part 1, see "What I Learned From the Colorado Springs Wildfire." )These are lessons I learned the hard way from the devastating Colorado Springs wildfire that was finally extinguished just last week.
Check Insurance Coverage
Most homeowner policies are intended to cover the cost to repair or rebuild your property (so-called replacement value coverage), but the coverage is limited to separately stated maximum amounts for the dwelling and the contents. Many policies automatically cover the dwelling for an extra 20% over the stated maximum. But if you are way underinsured, you won't be happy with your insurance situation if the worst happens. In my neighborhood, I know of one senior citizen who was underinsured to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars. His home was completely destroyed by the fire, and he won't be able to replace what he had. Apparently, he didn't pay attention to this issue, and neither did his insurance company. Don't let that happen to you. If in doubt, contact your insurance agent right now.
Consider Flood Insurance
Most standard homeowner insurance policies don't cover damage from floods. And the definition of "flood damage" can be very broad, which operates in favor of the insurance company and against you. Call your insurance agent for full details about what water-related damage is not covered because it's considered flood damage. Then consider buying a separate flood policy (or a flood rider for your existing policy, if available). Since I live in a hillside area, I just bought a flood policy, and it only costs a few hundred dollars a year. Depending on where you live, flood coverage could be a lot more, but you should still consider it. Finally, be aware that flood policies usually have a 30-day waiting period. So if you buy coverage today and a flood comes next week, you're not covered.
Use Laptop for Emergency Backup
Obviously, the great thing about laptops is they are totally portable. One of the few disaster-preparedness steps that I was actually smart about was backing up a good chunk of my most important financial and work-related documents on a laptop. In fact, that's the main purpose of the machine. So when it came time to evacuate, I just snatched it and took off. Don't forget the power cord!
By the way: in reacting to the first article on this subject, our readers contributed some useful comments.
Carry Plenty of Cash
While this might not be great advice for everybody, having plenty of cash in my jeans worked for me. Even in this age of plastic money, cash can be pretty darned useful in emergency situations. For instance, some restaurants don't take credit cards, you might have to make a million quick trips to the grocery store that you would prefer not to charge, and you may even find it necessary to issue a bribe or two (like I did to convince a hotel clerk to let the dog stay with us against the establishment's policy). Last but not least, kids in evacuee status go though cash like water for all the things you can imagine plus some you can't. Before you know it, you're down a grand. I know about ATMs, but I don't like them, and your bank might be closed for a while (like mine was).
Make Sure Flashlights Have Good Batteries
When the lights go out, for whatever reason, flashlights are essential -- especially if you need to quickly gather your most important stuff and dash out the door due to an emergency. Like everybody else, I know you're supposed to keep several flashlights with fresh batteries on hand at all times. But when I reached for my flashlights, the batteries were nearly dead. From this point forward, I pledge to check my flashlights every six months. You should too. Put it on your calendar.
Get a Cell Phone (for All 10 of You Who Don't Yet Have One)
I admit it. I'm a total dinosaur when it comes to electronic gadgets like cell phones. But I still have one. As you might imagine, it turned out to be absolutely invaluable during 11 days in evacuee status. I was able to communicate with the insurance company, find lodging despite the sold-out status of many hotels and motels, stay in touch with concerned relatives and friends, and get information from neighbors who were in the same boat.
Previously I was not a fan of younger kids having cell phones, but now I think it's a good idea for those 10 and up (depending on the kid, of course). In an emergency, you want to be able to track your kids down and talk to them. They may be at school, at a friend's house, whatever. There's nothing worse than worrying about where your kids are when something bad happens.
Always Keep Your Gas Tank at Least Half Full
When the Colorado Springs fire suddenly went completely crazy on June 26, around 25,000 people in the Northwest quadrant of the city were ordered to evacuate immediately. And I mean immediately, because the fire was breathing down their necks. This led to massive traffic jams on major streets out of the area. Inevitably some folks ran out of gas, which must have been terrifying because for a while it looked like there might be no stopping the fire's advance. Amazingly, everybody got out OK. But the lesson here is to always keep your gas tank at least half full. You really don't want to be forced to abandon a car loaded with your most prized possessions because you ran out of fuel.
The Bottom Line
I hope my experience motivates you to become better prepared for disastrous circumstances -- which hopefully will never actually happen. If your preparedness is sadly lacking (like mine was), please don't wait to fix the problem. Take it from me: disaster can strike in a New York minute.