In case of disaster, be sure key records, mementos are at hand

Safeguards • Being ready to grab things in a hurry can prevent loss of irreplaceable items.
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When it comes to keeping important papers in a safe spot, insurance agent Gary Hatano vividly remembers one client's solution.

While visiting the home of a retired military veteran, Hatano asked to see a copy of his life insurance policy.

"He said, 'Hold on a minute' and went to his refrigerator," recalls Hatano, a Farmers Insurance agent in Folsom, Calif. From the bottom of the vegetable bin, the retiree pulled out his insurance policy, neatly wrapped in aluminum foil.

Although a packet under the refrigerated carrots may not seem like the most sophisticated solution, Hatano said he couldn't argue too much with his client's intentions. In a fire, the packet, presumably wouldn't burn and everyone in his family knew exactly where it was.

From torrential floods in Louisiana to blistering Western wildfires, this year's weather-related calamities are a reminder that disaster can strike anyone, anytime, anywhere.

If a natural disaster hit your household, would you be ready? Everyone has important paperwork to safeguard: insurance policies, loan papers, marriage or divorce documents, even the vaccination records for children or pets.

Not to mention personal family photos, videos and music sitting on computers.

Knowing what to grab in case of a hurried evacuation could prevent the loss of irreplaceable family mementos, as well as documents that could be tedious and time-consuming to replace. Here are some options:

Grab-and-go binder • Having a box or binder at the ready can be a lifesaver. Think of it as a one-stop spot to keep all your key documents. You just need anything portable enough to carry on your own.

Hatano says he keeps a document-filled binder hidden at home. It contains copies of all his family's crucial paperwork — property records, bank accounts, names of key professionals (financial planner, attorney, banker, insurance and real estate agents). There's also a copy of his trust.

The binder does not contain originals of those documents, however. Originals should be kept in a safe deposit box, a fireproof safe, at an attorney's office or with trusted family members, Hatano advises.

Makin' a list • Another essential safeguard is a household inventory.

In the event of filing an insurance claim, "it's hard to remember what you have," said Perry Ghilarducci, a Sacramento, Calif., CPA who directs Avaunt Ltd. He recommends keeping copies of receipts, warranties, serial numbers and appraisals of your household valuables.

You can record a video or simply make a room-by-room list of appliances, furniture, electronics, books, clothing. Remember to include the backyard and garage.

Websites such as, sponsored by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, have easy tips on creating an inventory.

And don't forget your cellphone. Especially when so much of our personal life resides in our handheld devices, you don't want to be stranded if your phone gets lost, submerged or burned. Keep a card, ideally laminated, in your wallet with a list of important numbers.

Back it up • Whether it's your home or office computer, a backup is essential. A simple hard drive that automatically backs up everything stored on your computer is the first line of defense. But if it's damaged in a fire or flood, all your family, financial and business files and photos could be wiped out.

To better protect your hard drive, tech manufacturer ioSafe ( ) makes a series of hardy protective "safes" for computer hard drives that it claims are waterproof and fireproof, whether submerged in water for three days or burned in intense flames up to 1,500 degrees for 30 minutes.

It's basically a second hard drive that plugs into a USB port, a tougher twin to your computer's own hard drive.

"It's for the things your insurance can't replace: your family photo albums," ioSafe CEO Robb Moore said. "What would you grab as your house is burning? Your family photos and videos are the most compelling."

Akin to an airline's black box, the hard drive boxes are shown in online videos being dropped off balconies, burned in barbecues and run over by tractors. Starting at around $249, they can be found at electronics stores or online.

Others are migrating to storing computer data online in the so-called cloud, using backup systems that aren't sitting on their desktops.

Ghilarducci's firm, for instance, provides online document storage for its tax clients.

"It's a virtual file cabinet, if you will," the CPA said, noting that clients can log in, using a personal password, to retrieve their tax documents whenever needed. Clients are encouraged to use the access to scan and upload other financial documents mortgage, insurance, household inventories, for instance for their eyes only.

Ghilarducci says companies such as Carbonite ( ) automatically back up computer data to an online data storage center.

Safeguarding your possessions doesn't necessarily have to be a high-tech solution. As ioSafe's CEO put it: "Do something, [anything] to protect yourself against natural disaster."

Even if it's as simple as a zip-close bag. —

What to take

If disaster strikes, leave home or work with copies of these documents. Originals should be kept in a safe deposit box or fireproof safe:

Birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, wills or trusts, military discharge papers and other important "life event" documents

Property titles

Social Security cards


Insurance records

Credit card numbers and contact information

Automobile pink slips

Medical records, including prescription numbers

Passwords and user names for bank accounts and websites you frequently use

Phone numbers and addresses of relatives, friends, doctors

Federal and state income tax returns for past three years

Receipts for high-end purchases (jewelry, art, high-tech equipment)

Bonds/stock certificates

Household inventory

Source: The California Society of CPAs