Are You Prepared for the Next Emergency?

The biggest threat to your home is not natural disaster. It’s procrastination.

The summer of 2012 will be remembered for intense heat, severe storms, wildfires and power outages.

In the West, wildfires destroyed hundreds of homes. In the East, a massive storm knocked out power to millions for a week or more. Were you caught in either disaster? And if so, were you prepared for those emergencies?

Losing power for a week is more than an inconvenience. It creates safety issues, risks for the sick and elderly, and economic problems because businesses can’t operate and people are unable to work. In many places, you needed cash to buy necessities because credit cards couldn’t be scanned.

Hardware stores sold their entire inventories of generators — meaning many people waited until they lost power before they bought one. Are these same people waiting for a snowstorm before they purchase a shovel?

The time to prepare for a disaster is right now — before the next one occurs. Here’s how:

Family Disaster Plan
The first priority is protecting your life and the lives of your family members. That means you need a family disaster plan. Discuss what each person’s role will be in an extreme circumstance.

Design an evacuation route and practice it as a family, conducting drills from time to time.

Chances are everyone won’t be together when disaster hits, so identify now a place to meet outside the home — several miles away at least, on the assumption that your home has become inaccessible.

Assemble a well-equipped emergency kit for you and your pets, including food, water, medication, blankets and flashlights with batteries. Keep it up to date.

Make sure at least one car always has a full tank of gasoline; don’t allow all cars to be empty at the same time.

Financial Documents
If anyone gets hurt, your medical and disability insurance will become an important asset. Make sure your vital documents are in a place where you can easily get to them. Besides insurance policies, these include wills, powers of attorney, Social Security cards and bank and other financial accounts. Keep a supply of small bills on hand as well.

Do you know what emergency procedures your insurance company requires? Read your documents now or talk with your insurance agent.

If you must evacuate, notify your insurance company as soon as you can and ask if it will pay for temporary living expenses. If not, contact the Red Cross for crisis shelter locations.

Expenses and Income
If disruption will last for more than a week or two, notify your creditors. They will likely be understanding and help you avoid damage to your credit record when you fail to pay normal bills on time.

Contact your employer too. Employer-sponsored health or disability benefits might be available, and protections under the Family and Medical Leave Act may apply as well if you must be away from work to care for an injured family member. Details are on the Department of Labor’s Web site.

Getting Help
The Red Cross, Salvation Army and government agencies can help you. So can neighbors. In a disaster, people help people. Be ready to help, and don’t be reluctant to ask for help. Remember: You’re never alone in a disaster.

Originally published in Inside Personal Finance October 2012

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