Disaster Strikes: How to Store Important Documents

Disaster Strikes: How to Store Important Documents

Have you ever spent hours watching new reports of unfolding natural disasters? It’s heartbreaking when you see a family picking through rubble and looking for precious family heirlooms and important personal documents.

Watching weather and fire in action fascinates most viewers. And it’s all surreal when you’re watching from the safety of your own home. Even so, watching live news reports of natural disasters often makes people think about what they would do if disaster came to their area. Would you be ready and could you protect yourself and your home from Mother Nature gone wild?

Are you aware of how to store important documents so that they’re safe in case of a fire, flood, or other natural disasters? Take a few minutes and read our guide about things you can do that will help keep your personal documents safe—before disaster strikes.

Taking Care of Essential Records

When you take a minute and think about all the paper records in your home, you’ll come up with quite a list. Most of us keep a combination of the following personal documents in our homes:

  • Medical records
  • Homeowners insurance
  • Auto insurance 
  • Real estate 
  • Vehicle registration and titles
  • Recreational vehicle registration and titles
  • Financial records—pay stubs, tax documents, bank statements
  • Legal documents—wills, funeral instructions, powers of attorney
  • Cash—while not used for proof of anything other than that you know how to earn money, cash is paper and it’s a document, right? (We’ll talk about cash briefly in a minute)

Is your head hurting yet? It can feel overwhelming when you think about the vast number of paper documents people need to keep secure and keep intact in case of a disaster. Having a disaster recovery plan in place will lessen the pain. The most secure document storage solution may be your bank.

Take It to the Bank

The movies are full of scenes with people nervously opening a safety deposit box and anticipating the cache of money or family jewels they’ll find. All good suspense stories have at least one safety deposit box scene, don’t they?

Safety deposit boxes are an excellent storage solution for paperwork you would have trouble replacing. Banks charge a relatively affordable rental fee for use of the safety deposit box. In return, you get security and a private storage unit for your personal documents, but there are a few caveats. Don’t place your only copy of your will in the box. Don’t store your living will (also called an advance healthcare directive) in the box. If you die or become seriously ill or incapacitated, the people who need those documents may not get access to them.

Banks are not always protected during natural disasters. Safety deposit boxes aren’t always private. Homeland Security can access them and the IRS can freeze them if they freeze your assets. Remember the cash mentioned earlier? Most safety deposit contracts state that cash isn’t insured, at least not by the F.D.I.C. If you have a large stash of “mattress cash” keep it in a bank account.

Banks are one storage option for your personal documents but they’re not the only option and may not be the best solution for you. Many people prefer keeping documents close to home.

How to Store Important Documents at Home

One of the best ways to store paper documents is at home in a safe or file box. While storing original copies of your vital documents in a bank safety deposit box is fine, storing documents you access often is better done at home. Imagine if you had to visit the bank every time you needed your tax information or one of your insurance policies.

You can buy home safes with varying levels of fireproof, waterproof, and water-resistance technology. Home safes also come in a variety of sizes. Keep portability in mind. Ideally, you want a safe you can access quickly in case of a disaster. Keep photocopies of your driver’s license, birth certificates for all household members, and passports. Having copies of these documents can make replacement easier if you lose the originals. The home safe is where you should also store all insurance policies, real estate documents, including deeds, and all vehicle titles. 

Things you shouldn’t store in home safes include financial documents with your private information like bank statements. Also, don’t store large amounts of cash in a home safe. If a thief steals the safe, homeowner’s insurance typically only covers a small amount of cash. One important personal document you should place in your home safe are instructions for your family regarding access to your safety deposit box and contact information for your lawyer.

Another type of document security you should prepare for is storage of your financial records.

Technology and Storing Financial Records

Storing documents like birth certificates and insurance policies in a safe or file at home works well but all of us have documents, which require a higher level of security. Financial documents include bank statements, payroll stubs, and tax records. You don’t want any document that lists your Social Security number or other private identifying information available to identity thieves.

It may seem archaic but people do still use physical filing systems for storing financial records. Filing boxes and metal filing cabinets come to mind. Boxes and cabinets still work but they’re not ideal. What if a burglar steals the box? What if your filing system isn’t fire or waterproof? Instead of an accordion file or metal filing cabinet,  consider storing your personal documents on a small external hard drive. Documents take up minimal space meaning you probably won’t need more than 5-10 gigabytes of storage capacity.

An external hard drive offers secure protection because you can set them up so that they’re password protected. This also means your documents aren’t stored directly on your PC or laptop. In the event of a home evacuation, simply take the hard drive with you when you leave. You can access the secured documents from any computer.

Another storage option for sensitive documents is the cloud, which gives access to documents on any network-connected device.

Store It in the Cloud

The cloud. It’s a term that floats around everywhere today. From the office to the classroom, people talk about cloud computing. The cloud isn’t some ethereal hidden storage locker. Cloud storage is a digital storage option many people use today for personal document storage.

The cloud isn’t the best solution for storing documents like birth certificates, Social Security cards, or other documents where the original might be required. For example, if you apply for a mortgage, you’ll need an original of your SSN. But, if eliminating paper clutter is your goal for 2019, the cloud works. Cloud storage also works well as a back-up for those vital records, but it is not a perfect solution.

You have three solid options for storing personal documents but how can you best prepare those documents for storage?

Protection from Fire and Water Damage

No one anticipates a fire or flood damaging their home and personal belongings. Even when you live in a flood zone, a flood isn’t a reality until it happens to you. When disasters happen most people have minutes, sometimes seconds for safe evacuation of their home. You won’t have time for locating, gathering and packing important documents.

If you know you’re in an area prone to floods or heavy rain you can prepare personal documents before the weather destroys them. Store documents in zippered plastic bags. Gallon size bags are great for storing important papers and cash. Storing personal documents in plastic bags may also make it easier when you come back to your home and start cleaning up water damaged areas.

Protecting documents from fire damage is pro-active rather than reactive. If you live in an area prone to wildfires, you may have time for collecting important personal items. If you’re the victim of a house fire, your life is more important than any document.

Are Your Documents Disaster Proof?

Hopefully, we’ve helped you think about how to store important documents. When you have a plan in place and document storage options, like the ones in this article, the likelihood of losing important documents is less than if you have no plan at all.

Whether you need more information about document storage or you need help with the recovery of personal property after a disaster, we’re here for you. Contact us for immediate help with disaster recovery.