THE BLOG
06/18/2014 08:02 pm ET | Updated Aug 18, 2014

Make Sure Your Family Has a Disaster Plan

Bob Pool via Getty Images

June 1 marked the official beginning of hurricane season. Meanwhile, across much of the Western U.S., major droughts have greatly increased the danger for summer wildfires. And don't forget the recent record-breaking winter storms across much of the country -- or the ongoing potential for earthquakes, tornados, floods and other natural disasters.

Such catastrophic events are inevitable, largely unpreventable and often strike without warning. But even though we can't always predict natural disasters, we can anticipate their likely aftermaths, including property loss, power or water service disruption, scarcity of food and supplies and overtaxed relief organizations.

If you haven't already done so, sit down with your family and develop a disaster plan; and if you already have one, dust it off to see whether updates are in order. By planning ahead and knowing what you might need under dire circumstances, you can save yourselves a lot of time, money and grief.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers great suggestions for developing a family emergency plan, building an emergency supply kit, and learning what to do before, during and after emergencies (everything from home fires to terrorist attacks). They even provide an emergency plan for family pets.

Here are some emergency-planning ideas you may not have considered:
  • Pick meeting spots both in and outside your neighborhood where your family can gather after an emergency.
  • Choose one person (possibly out-of-town) everyone can contact for updates.
  • Make sure your kids know how to escape the house in case of fire (alternate routes, crawl low to the ground to avoid smoke inhalation, etc.)
  • Identify and stock essential items you'll need to survive for at least three days in case help is unavailable. Include ample water (at least a gallon per person, per day), non-perishable food, and medications. Don't forget water, food and supplies for pets.
  • Stock an emergency kit with batteries, flashlight, a battery-powered or hand-cranked radio, water-purification tablets, warm clothes, blankets, can opener, wrench to turn off utilities, toilet paper, moist towelettes, garbage bags, solar cellphone charger, etc.
  • If a family member receives life-sustaining treatments (e.g., dialysis), identify alternate treatment locations in case yours becomes incapacitated.
  • Check your fire extinguishers periodically.
  • Take a picture of yourself with your pets in case you should become separated.
  • Safely store emergency cash in case ATMs aren't working.
  • Sign up for text or phone public emergency alerts.
  • Keep at least one corded phone in the house because cordless phones require AC power.
Should disaster strike, you'll need access to financial and legal records, whether to file insurance claims, apply for loans or simply withdraw cash. Take these steps now to ensure easier access when the time comes:
  • Create a log of all account numbers, emergency numbers, contact information and passwords for your bank and credit card accounts, loans, insurance policies, utilities and other important accounts.
  • Update it regularly and save hardcopies in secure, offsite locations such as a safety deposit box or with a trusted friend living in another area.
  • You can also email the list to yourself in an encrypted, password-protected file, save it on a CD or USB drive, or use a cloud-based storage service that will let you access it from any Internet connection.
  • Make PDF copies of tax returns, insurance policies and legal documents and save offsite, as above, in case your files or computer are damaged. Also make digital copies of invaluable family photos, documents and memorabilia that money can't replace.
If you ever need to file an insurance claim or claim a tax deduction for lost, stolen or damaged property, it'll be much easier if you have an inventory of everything you own -- photos or videos are even better. A few available tools:
  • The IRS' Casualty, Theft and Loss Workbook includes a worksheet for cataloging and estimating the value of your possessions.
  • The Insurance Information Institute maintains a free, secure online home inventory software application (including a smartphone app) that lets you access your home inventory, anywhere, anytime.
  • Your insurance company's website likely contains a downloadable inventory form.
Be aware that standard homeowners insurance doesn't cover flood damage associated with hurricanes, tropical storms and many other weather conditions -- even backed-up sewer drains. You can purchase separate coverage from the National Flood Insurance Program, although be aware that there's a 30-day waiting period. A few other insurance reminders:
  • Most policies cover wind damage from windstorms and tornados, but may require specific, additional coverage if the damage is caused by a hurricane.
  • Earthquake coverage opportunities and rules vary by state, so check with your state's insurance commissioner.
  • Many homeowner policies exclude mold damage except under specific circumstances. For example, if mold was caused by a burst pipe it's probably covered, but if repeated water leaks or poor home maintenance were to blame, probably not. Review your policy carefully and ask about purchasing a separate rider for mold coverage.
  • If your car is damaged by a flood or struck by a tree falling in a windstorm, it would likely be covered under the "comprehensive" portion of your car insurance. However, if a tree falls in your yard and doesn't hit the house, its removal wouldn't be covered by your homeowner's policy.
If disaster does strike and you need tax relief, speak to a trained IRS specialist at 866-562-5227. To learn more about many other resources available, visit the IRS' Disaster Assistance and Emergency Relief site. A few additional disaster tips:
  • Store emergency contact numbers (including fraud lines for bank and credit card accounts) in your cellphone, in case you're away from home. Needless to say, you should always keep your cellphone locked and password protected, in case of theft.
  • Document any damage with photos or video before you start cleanup or repairs.
  • Keep track of expenses you incur to prevent further damage, for temporary housing or to move your possessions for safekeeping, as they may be reimbursable under your insurance claim.
  • Don't delay submitting your claim, since insurers often settle claims in the order filed.

FEMA provides information on how you might be able to get government assistance before, during and after a disaster. You can apply for assistance online at Disasterassistance.gov or by calling 800-621-3362.

Bottom line: Having a family emergency plan in place could lessen the blow should disaster strike.

This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.