Last month some good friends nearly lost their home. They live in a duplex with one shared wall, and late one evening, their shared-wall neighbor rang the doorbell three times in quick succession; they knew something was wrong. When they answered the door, the neighbor said, “the house is on fire.” My friends had about 30 seconds to get themselves out the front door. The fire completely destroyed the neighbor’s house (all the people are safe and fine!), but amazingly, the firewall between the homes did its job and kept my friends’ home safe. However, despite not having any actual flames inside their house, they did get a ton of smoke, which seeped into everything. On top of that, the fire fighters had brought in the big hoses, so the basement had several inches of water by the time the fire was out. In the clean-up they lost about half of their possessions as “unsalvageable.” Bouncing back has been a tough process for them, and of course, it’s made me think about my own home and what I would do if it had been me.
What would you do with 30 seconds? What would you grab? Where are your most important items? Disasters aren’t very fun to talk about, but they can happen to anyone, and you’ll rarely get much notice. Disasters come in many forms, and vary depending on where you live. I grew up in tornado territory and now live where wildfires threaten every fall. On the other hand, hurricane preparedness and theft prevention require different tactics. Here are some general helpful hints to get you more prepared for whatever life and mother nature might throw your way.
Catalog Your Stuff
If you are very detail-oriented, the best option is to keep receipts or detailed spreadsheets of items with their brand, purchase date, purchase cost, and descriptions. If you do lose a lot of your belongings, you’ll need to justify your insurance claims with as much proof of ownership as possible. With the amount of things always coming and going from my house, that level of detail seems pretty unlikely, but it depends on who you are and where you’re at in your life.
An easier option is to just make it a yearly habit to do a photo-catalog of your things. Walk around your house and take pictures of all the titles on your bookshelf, your DVD rack, the clothes in your closets, the car, your kitchen cupboards, etc. Those photos can go a long way in helping you prove what you owned and reminding you when you’re overwhelmed with insurance paperwork.
Backup Your Data to the Cloud
Unless you keep all of your digital devices within a foot of your body at all times, it’s likely that you would not be able to find or grab everything in a fast-acting emergency. We keep a lot of critical personal information and items on our computers and phones. What if you lost all those photos? The files and documents? Instead of just backing things up to external hard drives, which can easily be lost or destroyed, it could be worth investing in internet-based storage. For a low monthly or yearly fee, many companies can securely store your digital life, allowing you to access things from any device in the future. Stolen laptop? House fire? Dropped your phone in the toilet? All that data can easily be retrieved if you have things set to automatically backup.
Get a Fire Safe or Safe Deposit Box for Truly Valuable Things
If you have a precious family heirloom that you rarely need to use or critical documents detailing ownership of big-ticket items or even highly valuable collections (rare coins, for instance), it might be worth investing in a fire-resistant home safe or a safe deposit box. Most banks offer spaces for a small yearly rent. You get a key and can access it any time the bank is open. This is great for documents, but maybe not as useful for the fancy jewelry you might want to pull out for a special holiday. A home fire safe is more convenient, and for between fifty and a few hundred dollars, you can get a safe that will hold a few small items and keep them safe for an hour or more of fire and several hours of water immersion.
Keep Emergency Supplies on Hand
Many natural disasters and accidents have the capacity to limit your access to basic necessities like food, water, and/or medical supplies, so always be sure your home has a stash of emergency supplies that includes these items. Keep the food and water up to date (nothing expired), and regularly check things like flashlights to be sure they work or that they have batteries. Also, make sure this kit is easily accessible and that everyone in your residence knows where it is.
Know Your Evacuation Plan
Sometimes the best preparation is simply talking through your plans with your family or roommates. What would you do if you had 30 seconds before your house burned or a tornado hit? What if you were in the line of a wildfire or hurricane and had an hour or more? Always know where you have to go and what you have to do to be safe. Study up most often on safety procedures for the disasters common in your area, like hurricanes around the Gulf of Mexico or earthquakes on the west coast, but still make sure you have a plan of action in place in case of a freak incident.
If you truly have a very limited amount of time, the only good advice regarding possessions is to leave everything except what you already have in your hands or on your body. Get yourself to safety whether that’s outside, to a storm shelter, or to high ground. Your life is the most irreplaceable thing in your home.
With something like a fire at the neighbor’s house, you can probably think about grabbing one or two things that are immediately accessible. My husband and I agreed that we’d grab our passports and social security cards (kept together), wallets, a coat, and our phones.
With slightly more time, you can expand your wants to a few pieces of precious jewelry, a couple special trinkets or objects, and a computer. But don’t forget the practical items too! If you have necessary medications, do you keep them all together so you could quickly throw them in a bag? And if you’re losing everything else, it would be extremely pleasant to have a couple changes of clothes. A great suggestion is to grab your laundry hamper. If it’s been a few days (or more?) since you did laundry, the clothes in the hamper should be seasonally appropriate, fit you, and cover the range of your needs (underwear included!)./p>
The most important part of being prepared for emergencies is obviously to make a plan and practice it. Talk through your plans with the people involved. Practice how you’d escape your home in case of a fire or flood, especially if you have young kids. Get them involved. I hope you never need to use these tips, but if you do, you’ll be glad you’ve planned just a little bit ahead!