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Resolve to Prepare: Back Up Important Documents for Emergencies

If last November’s Midwest tornado outbreak is still fresh in your mind, you might be considering a New Year’s resolution to be better prepared for a natural disaster in 2014.

One way to do that is to organize and back up your vital documents. As the residents of Washington, Ill. know (site of the EF4-grade tornado that hit November 17th), the loss of important personal papers — things like birth certificates, tax records and mortgage documents — can be a distressing consequence of disaster.

Here’s how to protect your own documents from the unexpected this year, and beyond.

Know which documents to protect

Start by locating all the records you want to protect. You’ll need access to these documents (and likely others) in the event that you evacuate your home. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers suggestions on the types of documents you’ll want to gather:

  • Personal records (birth, marriage, divorce, adoption and death certificates)
  • Passports, driver’s licenses and other personal identification documents
  • Social Security cards
  • Property leases, deeds, mortgages and other related records (home and auto titles, etc.)
  • Financial documents (pay stubs, bank statements, retirement statements, safe deposit box keys)
  • Debit card and credit card numbers
  • Medical records (prescriptions, copies of health insurance cards, health provider contact information)
  • Family photos, keepsakes and other mementos

Keep original documents and copies safe

From there, you’ll want to decide how to back up these important documents. Preparing your valuables for disaster is less about organizing them, and more about gathering them and deciding where to store them.

flash driveYou can start by making copies and scans of important paperwork. Store the originals offsite — in a safe deposit box or with a trusted friend — and keep the copies, or a flash drive with the digital versions, in your home emergency kit, FEMA says, so you can readily access the info in the event that you’ve evacuated your home.

Be sure that you’ve password-protected any data you’ve stored to protect against any breaches in the event that the drive is stolen or lost. FEMA also suggests keeping copies of these important records in a flood- and fireproof safe.

Of course, these methods still have flaws. Consider that, after an EF5 tornado hit Moore, Okla., in May, there was a path of devastation over a mile wide and 17 miles long, with document safes and lock boxes literally thrown miles from their original locations. Tulsa World even reported debris from Oklahoma landing in Kansas!  Operation Photo Rescue was an effort in which volunteers posted found photos and documents so Moore residents could claim them, but the fact that such a site even exists makes it clear that our most prized and valuable possessions are vulnerable in a disaster.

Keep documents safe in the cloud

An interesting alternative is cloud storage, which makes the digital backup of personal documents more feasible than ever for the average person. Popular services like Dropbox, Amazon Cloud Drive and Google Drive let you store documents on a remote server network – what’s known as “the cloud” – rather than the hard drive of your computer. You may already be using cloud services for your images on sites like Snapfish, Shutterfly or other photo sites.

Of course, cloud services have their own vulnerabilities, which is why not everyone is entirely comfortable storing their most important papers there. If you do go this route, read the terms and services of the cloud service you choose carefully (can the service provider disclose your information, for instance?), know whether the provider stores information even after you delete it, and take other precautions to make sure you’re moving your documents safely to the cloud.

Set your year off to a good start, and resolve to be ready by making sure that a disaster never takes the papers and mementos that are most important to you — even if your originals are nowhere to be found.


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