Emergency Evacuation: Grabbing Your Important Records

Routinely, but sadly, the news reports of residential emergencies—a fire in a family home, regional fires destroying dozens of homes, tremendous storms and flooding. Some of you reading this have experienced home disasters firsthand, living through a frantic evacuation, severe loss of home and personal items, and the uphill climb of rebuilding. All this can only be made worse when your important records have also perished.

Help from Get It Together

For help along the way—creating your planner, talking with loved ones, maintaining your planner—turn to Get It Together: Organize Your Records So Your Family Won’t Have To.

  • Get It Together is a workbook with CD-ROM that provides step-by-step help for identifying, organizing, and storing your important documents and information. It is available through all major booksellers.
  • For the companion Binder & Tab Set, and for more information, see www.GetItTogetherBook.com.

I recently read an account of a couple who fled the 1991 Oakland Hills fire. In their rush to flee the advancing firestorm, they were able to grab only their insurance policies. When the smoke cleared, they were grateful to have the policies in hand—but all of their other records burned to ash.


Get Organized Today

There are many benefits to organizing your important records today, including:


  • Improved oversight for you, to better manage your daily and long-term affairs—for example, coordinate your insurance coverage, streamline your banking and brokerage relationships, identify and manage the beneficiaries on your retirement accounts
  • Easy organization for you, supporting your ongoing need to store and retrieve important records, and
  • Clear direction for your loved ones when you become incapacitated or die.


In the meantime, should disaster loom, you will also be mightily prepared for evacuation. You will be able to grab your records binder from its secure location (that is, probably from your home safe), and know that you have all of your important documents—in your hands, complete, portable, ready to go.


For some years, I’ve had a small checklist posted, What to Grab in an Emergency. It is a short list, really, because my records are in one place. (In truth, the part of the list relating to the family dog is much longer!)


How to Get Started

You can create your basic records binder (or “planner”) in as little as two or three hours. The first steps:

  • Binder or File. Get a 3-inch binder, accordion file, or small file box that will be dedicated to your important records.
  • Safe Storage. Identify where you will safely store your binder or file. Ideally, you will use a fireproof, water-resistant home safe.
  • Collect Records. Gather your important records and organize them into your binder or file. You may want to add tab dividers to organize the materials by topic.


Once you have your materials pretty well organized, talk with two or three trusted loved ones—especially your agents (healthcare and financial) and the executor of your will. These few people need to know of your planner—where it is and how to access it. Then, every year or so, remind them of its location and access instructions—so that when the time comes, when they are stressed, sad, scared, they can easily turn to your planner for the help they need.


Lastly, over time, update your planner with changes. You can simply insert notes and materials regarding changes—e.g., new credit card, canceled insurance policy, new bank account—and then more thoroughly update your entire planner every couple of years.


Melanie Cullen is the author of Get It Together: Organize Your Records So Your Family Won’t Have To (Nolo), a workbook/CD-ROM for preparing and organizing your important records—for yourself and for your loved ones. She is a management consultant with TerraSys Consulting, Inc. and serves on the Projects@Work editorial board. She holds an MBA from the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University.


Image: Flickr Creative Commons / Erika Q

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