'There are going to be more storms': How to safeguard financial records, according to a disaster recovery specialist

"Having pictures of your property inside and out and having an inventory ... is a very good idea."


From the February storm that took down the Texas power grid to the fires that have lit up the West all summer, 2021 is on track to be one of the most expensive years for disaster cleanup ever. The tab was already running high when Hurricane Ida slammed the East Coast last week.

Ida leveled cities along coastal Louisiana and caused severe flooding as far north New York City and the surrounding metropolitan area, killing almost 70 people across eight states in the process. And the recovery after Ida will cost $95 billion, AccuWeather estimates.

The wide geographic scope of the damage underscores the idea that everyone needs to make plans for natural disasters, that can make recovering easier, says Kathy Grunewald, an attorney who specializes in disaster recovery with Legal Services of North Florida.

"People need to be thinking about it more because there are going to be more storms," Grunewald says. "It's going to happen."

Residents of Florida's panhandle, where Grunewald practices, are very familiar with these kinds of threats. As climate change makes such disasters bigger and more frequent, it's imperative that homeowners there and elsewhere not only carry the right kind of insurance, she says, and that they also have a disaster plan for their key financial docs, to help them during the storm and the long recovery that follows.

Keep copies of important documents in safe places

One of the smartest moves homeowners can make is to keep copies of all their important documents, from the deeds to their properties to their passports, in one secure location, Grunewald says. Store paper copies in a watertight, fire-resistant safe, experts suggest, and Grunewald recommends also storing digital copies in the cloud.

"I would have a copy of them that I had in a separate location if that's possible," Grunewald says. If "you can put them on a thumb drive or something like that or store them in the cloud, that's a good thing."

Be thorough with the kinds of documents you include in your emergency file folder. Proof of insurance, tax records, and other documents related to the property should be in there, and so should all other documents that prove who you are and where you are in your life, Grunewald says.

"Records related to your bank account that would have your banking number or your account number" should be kept safe, Grunewald says, along with accompanying proofs of identification, including passports, green cards, or driver's licenses.

Keep copies of legal documents, like custody agreements, there too, Grunewald says. "If you have a custody order, then you might want to make sure that you have a copy of that in case there's any dispute about where children are supposed to be and the courts are closed, as they often are right after a disaster."

Photograph your home now to prove future damage

Most insurers will tell you to make a comprehensive inventory of your possessions and to photograph your home, Grunewald says. People rarely do it in advance, but having pictures that show what your house looked like before a disaster can make the clean up much less financially painful.

"I know insurance companies tell us that all the time, and often people don't do it, but in preparation for storm you should have that," Grunewald says. "Having pictures of your property, inside and out, and having an inventory of your personal property in your house is a very good idea."

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Photographs will not only help you keep track of all the stuff you have in your house. They can also come in handy if there are any disputes over how much your insurer may want to pay you after a disaster.

Physical copies of the pictures can be kept with your other emergency documents in the safe, and digital versions can be saved in the cloud or on a thumb drive. Smartphone apps can help you make your inventory, too.

"Have them from before a storm, in case there was a question about the damage at your house," Grunewald says. That way, "you'll have the picture to show that it's related to the storm."

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