Like most people, I always assumed I would never be directly affected by a disaster. I was wrong. As a result of the devastating Colorado Springs wildfire, which this week was finally stamped out, I was an evacuee for 11 days and had to move my family and our belongings five times. When we were finally allowed to return on July 4, we discovered that our pleasant hillside neighborhood in the Mountain Shadows section of the city had suffered by far the heaviest damage. Out of the roughly 220 homes in our immediate neighborhood, about 170 burned to the ground. A bit further away, another 180 or so houses were also destroyed.
While my house was spared -- as it happened to be 100 feet outside the fire's path -- all but one of the dozens of houses that I used to see from my kitchen window are now completely gone. Where those homes once stood, the highest objects left are the burned-out hulks of refrigerators, washers and dryers, air conditioners and cars. In the daytime, it looks like the aliens have attacked. At night, there are no lights except those from patrolling police cars. Surreal may be an overused word, but it's the best way to describe the scene from my window.
The take-away from this experience is that you can't protect yourself from every disaster, but you can certainly do things to tilt the odds heavily in your favor. So what I want to talk about here is preparations that you should undertake right now to protect your financial interests in case you are ever exposed to a disaster: tornado, hurricane, fire, flood, earthquake, whatever. Did I make all these preparations myself? Not even close, which was dumb. But I've learned my lesson and now want to pass it along to you. Here goes.
Put Together a Financial Go Kit
Go to your friendly office supply store and buy one of those roomy plastic briefcases. Then put your most important financial documents (or copies of them) inside, including: homeowner and auto insurance coverage summaries; health insurance information; banking, mortgage, and credit card statements; investment and retirement account documents; tax returns for at least the last three years; your will; and a key to your safe deposit box. Add to this list as you see fit.
Place the briefcase in a known location where you can grab it on the way out if you're forced to leave your home in a big hurry. If you need two briefcases, go for it. It's also a good idea to staple business cards, like the ones for your insurance agent and tax preparer, to the applicable documents. Obviously, you'll need to update your kit from time to time. I suggest doing that at least once a year. Pick a date like Jan. 1 or your birthday. That way, it will probably only take a few minutes each year to keep your kit current.
By the way: those allegedly fireproof strong boxes don't work in a really hot fire. An acquaintance of mine had one, and everything in it became toast when his house burned down.
Take Lots of Pictures of Your Property and Your Stuff
If you want your insurance company to be reasonable about covering things lost in a disaster, you must be able to show what you had. Duh! Did I do this? No! Please don't follow my example. Walk around the exterior of your home and take photos of each side. If you have a nice BBQ and outdoor furniture, take pictures. Take photos of all your rooms and the contents of closets and storage areas. If you have expensive furniture or furnishings, take individual photos of those items. If you have a yard, take lots of pictures because most homeowner policies cover damage to landscaping, fences and outbuildings. Put the pictures in your financial go kit. Update the photos as needed.
Make a Grab-and-Go List
If you're forced to evacuate, you may have several hours to get your act together and leave your home. If so, you'll probably have enough time to carry away lots of things beyond just your financial go kit. Make a list of the reasonably portable items that you would most hate to lose. I mean things like family pictures, sports trophies and maybe even your PC. If you still have the blueprints for your home, put them on the list and put them where you can find them. They will be very helpful if you want to rebuild the same house. Believe me, if you're in the evacuation mode, you won't necessarily be thinking straight, and you'll be glad you have a grab-and-go list to mindlessly follow. Keep the list in the front of the aforementioned financial go kit so you'll always know where it is.
The Bottom Line
I hope my experience motivates you to become better prepared for disastrous circumstances -- which hopefully will never actually happen. And please stay tuned for the upcoming second installment on the same subject.