Imagine you have only a few minutes to escape from a wildfire. You run out with nothing but your pajamas and maybe your wallet and keys, like these people just had to do. Or, imagine you put your feet over the side of your bed and realize the water is ankle-deep and rising. You grab what you can and climb out a window to the roof, like so many did during the recent hurricanes. Now, imagine you come back to your home. It’s charred rubbish. Or, it’s mildew-infested and waterlogged. You want to get federal assistance. After getting power and finding a working computer and detouring past "404 File Not Found" errors, you find DisasterAssistance.gov. Here’s what you still need, according to the Disaster Survivor Information Checklist:
- Social Security Numbers. Or, if you don’t know them, and are willing to wait 10-14 days, you can always request a replacement card here. If you need new ones, hope you managed to make it out with other identifying information.
- All your insurance information: auto, flood if you’ve got it (and you should), or homeowner.
- Information about all the damage the disaster caused.
- Total annual household income before taxes.
- Address and phone number of the property where the damage occurred and current address and phone number.
- If you want direct deposit – which you really should, since mail service might not return for a while – you’ll “just” (as the site puts it) need your bank name, type of account, routing number and account number. J
And that’s just to apply for assistance. Let’s say you’re still evacuated, but your medication went up in smoke in the disaster. You need immediate replacements, and you’ve got, say, Medicare. Hope you’ve got your Medicare card, with the plan number, or you might not even be able to get accurate information about costs or pharmacies that accept your plan. Oh, you don’t? Well, back to the Social Security Administration.
My husband’s mother, who lives in Puerto Rico, is extremely fortunate. Her house only saw minor flooding during Hurricane Maria. Yet three weeks later, she’s still without power and water, and she’s almost out of food. She’s coming to live with my family in Virginia for a while. Guess what she’s been working on for the past few weeks, and what I’ve been trying to work on from here?
After this experience, I can’t say this enough: back up important documents. I’ve spent hours on the computer and texting back and forth with my husband’s brother, who is also in Puerto Rico and is still without phone service, trying to get necessary information just so I could look up other information. And remember, her important documents weren’t destroyed.
So back up everything. Get a safe. Get an account in cloud storage or get a hard drive that you can grab and go. Protect it with every encryption and password you can think of, but make sure you can access it. Then scan and store everything. You can use your phone as a scanner with apps like Tiny Scanner, available free for apple and android phones.
Scan everything you need to get federal and insurance help, seen above, plus copies of any other important paperwork like lease agreements, proof of address or home ownership and stock and bond certificates. Take photos of all your possessions, including serial numbers, so you can prove damage if necessary. Back up your photos and scan old ones so you don’t lose them. Sync your contacts list across devices.
Do it as soon as possible. Keep it updated. Don’t wait until the water’s rising or the earthquake hits or the fire is a mile away. Block out a few minutes a week. It’s worth it.
Melissa Rivera is a jack-of-all-trades who is master of none. She has been a writer and editor for more than 15 years.