Preparing for Disaster

If you’ve ever been in a disaster such as a
hurricane or tornado, you know the value of having accessible personal records,
especially after the damage has been done. An article in the New York Times
offers guidance that could be very helpful later.

A few years ago on a hot, humid summer day a huge tornado formed in southwestern Oklahoma in the late afternoon. It continued on the ground leaving a path of devastation that was unlike any seen in this region known for harsh weather. The winds were so powerful they ripped up asphalt from roadways. The storm stayed on the ground for an unusually long time, leaving a trail of destruction that cut through Moore, Del City and Midwest City.

The path of destruction was total. F5 winds can even strip bark from trees.

All of this comes as I reflect on the damage of Katrina and Rita. As I stood on the grounds of Gulfside Assembly, a retreat center that was levelled by Katrina, I found photos of families, a gun holster and a chrome boat horn picked up by the storm and deposited here. Sometimes such artifacts are found miles from their home.

Back in Oklahoma, the huge tornado seemed to lift. I lived 50 miles from the worst tornado damage but another storm formed and dropped from the sky onto our small town at approximately 10:30 that same evening. It spared most of the residential area but decimated the town’s economic base–a mall, the hospital and a trucking firm that was a major employer.

Earlier in the day I had taken the storm warnings seriously and put financial and health records into a storm cellar. I was editing two videos and I took the original tapes and related materials into the cellar as well.

When the storm hit we were in the cellar. We felt the air pressure change and heard the roar of the wind. I could see a small section of the front porch of our house through an escape hatch in the cellar. As debris reined down on us we knew at least that a part of the house was still standing and that we had important records and work products in case we needed them.

For several days after the tornado I collected cancelled checks, photos and other papers that were deposited on our property by the storm. A collection area was set up where town residents could bring these items for storm victims to claim them. However, some of the items I found in our yard were from towns more than fifty miles away.

As it worked out our damage was relatively minor. But I learned the importance of having personal papers safely stored. I’m more attentive to this than I was before.

All of this leads me to recommend an excellent article in the New York Times that offers step-by-step directions on how to make records for insurance purposes. The article makes an important point. It’s these papers–birth certificates, social security cards, insurance policies, automobile titles and similar documents–that we most need after a catastrophe to establish identity and verify losses. The loss of sentimental items such as photos leaves us emotionally bereft. The loss of legal documents guarantees that time will be spent tracking down replacements. In the aftermath of a catastrophe, this is one more headache heaped upon a myriad of others.

If you’re in an area at risk to natural calamity, check out the advice offered in the article and the websites to which it links.

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