Preparing for disaster

May 1, 2006
We are barely coping with the aftermath of last year’s disastrous tornado and hurricane season as another one begins.

We are barely coping with the aftermath of last year’s disastrous tornado and hurricane season as another one begins. The predictions are that the upcoming seasons will result in an increase of hurricanes and other weather-related events. Although this is slightly off the subject of “infection control,” it seems appropriate to examine some issues that surfaced during last year’s disasters - in the hope that some preparation might lessen the blow when nature strikes. It was heartbreaking to watch the news reports of people who had no identification, no access to bank accounts, and no way to recover the needed documents that represented their lives.

Just as we take action to prevent disease by receiving regular health evaluations, it seems practical to implement a disaster prevention plan. Even though you may not live in an area prone to tornados or hurricanes, many other natural disasters can threaten your safety, such as fire, earthquake, mudslide, etc. In addition, there is the ever-present possibility of terrorist attacks. If any of these events took place today, would you be prepared?

I’m not sure that many of us thought about the possibility of such a total disruption in our lives until we saw how Hurricane Katrina so dramatically affected the lives of thousands of people in Louisiana and Mississippi. Those living in the path of this catastrophic storm lost more than their homes and material possessions. In many cases, they lost their entire identities. Financial records, insurance policies, marriage and divorce certificates, military records, and many other important documents were lost. Without these important documents, many people are finding it very challenging to rebuild their lives.

The American Red Cross recommends that everyone prepare a personal disaster and evacuation plan. In addition to supplies of water and food, having supplies of any necessary medications on hand is recommended, along with important personal and financial documents.

Copies of documents such as birth certificates, marriage and driver’s licenses, military records, religious documents such as baptismal certificates, college transcripts, professional licenses, and even copies of job resumes should be included in the disaster kit. Copies of credit cards and billing information, checking account statements, property tax bills, property deeds, life insurance, and home owners or renters insurance policies are also important documents to include.

Original copies of many of these documents are best kept in a bank’s safe deposit box. Although the bank may also be affected by the disaster, most bank vaults are very secure and would protect your documents better than if they are stored in your home. Remember to include the key to the safe deposit box in your disaster kit, and a copy of the agreement with the bank that proves ownership or rental of the box.

Medical records, such as copies of vaccination records for children, are also important to safeguard. Document any health conditions and/or allergies for all members of your family. If you or your family members have medical directives, such as living wills, include them as well. Recent photographs of family members should be included in the kit, in case they are needed to help locate missing family members. Also include photos of your pets with their names.

Many of you are wondering how in the world you can gather up all that paperwork and keep it handy in one place, ready to take with you if you have to leave your home suddenly. Although it initially seems a little daunting, it is certainly a good idea to have these documents organized in case you need to access them, let alone prepare for some type of disaster. One way to minimize the amount of paper is to invest in a scanner and scan all the appropriate documents, burn them onto a CD or save them to a portable hard drive. The CD-ROM or hard drive can be placed in your disaster kit, and accessed as necessary. Store the papers and/or electronic copies in a fireproof box that is portable (light weight) enough for you to easily take with you if you need to evacuate.

Scanning photos, such as family portraits and wedding photos, is also a good plan in case original photos are lost or destroyed. Burn the photos on CDs. If the originals are lost, new photos can be printed from the copies on the CDs.

If you haven’t already established online access to your financial accounts, it would be a good idea to do so. This would give you many more options in case of a disaster. As long as you can have access to an Internet connection, you can access your financial information.

It seems weird to think of putting the contents or essentials of your life in a box, ready to be transported at any given time to a safer place. But if they had it to do over again, I’m sure that many of the people whose lives have been so disrupted by disaster would agree that planning ahead is well worth the time it takes to prepare. You may want to contact your attorney and financial advisor for their input on what documentation you should protect in case of a disaster.

For more information about disaster planning, go to the American Red Cross Web site at and the Department of Homeland Security at

I hope that no one needs this disaster kit. But as the old saying goes: Better safe than sorry. Take the time to develop your disaster plan and gather your important documents. It’s a small price to pay for an increased sense of security.