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Thursday, July 6, 2006 | The approach of hurricane season has everyone worried that another Katrina will rip through the Southeastern United States. Here on the West Coast we’ve got our own worries what with recent news that the San Andreas Fault is primed for the “Big One” – an earthquake measuring 8.0 or higher on the Richter scale.

Of course, that revelation was followed by the fact that the Big One could happen tomorrow or in 10 years. I thought we already knew that, but nevertheless, all this talk of disaster has me thinking about my emergency preparedness. Right now my kit contains two cans of tuna, a manual can opener, an assortment of bandages and an empty carton of granola bars. (The kit is in the garage next to the car so it makes for a great grab-n-go snack bar when we’re on the run.)

Clearly, we’re not prepared for disaster on any real level.

But I’ve recently been wondering what I should do about all our important legal and financial documents. If you’ve ever lost your wallet you know what a pain it is to replace all those important credit cards and your driver’s license. Imagine what a pain it would be to recreate your entire financial and legal existence. I’m talking about your marriage license, passport, birth certificate and the deed to your home. Do you know where they are? And if so, would you be able to grab them quickly if you had to evacuate?

My documents are stored in a single place and I could grab them quickly if I had to, but they are hardly secure and certainly not fire proof. There are a variety of options available including a lockable, fireproof box kept at home, a bank safe-deposit box and electronic archival.

Whichever option you choose, experts offer a long list of items that should be safeguarded: all financial documents, including bank, mortgage and credit account numbers, insurance documents, investment and retirement accounts and tax returns; legal documents such as wills, marriage licenses, divorce papers, birth certificates and adoption papers, Social Security cards, powers of attorney and vehicle registration and ownership papers; and medical documents like prescriptions, a list of necessary medications and doctor contact information, health insurance identification cards, vaccination records, veterinary records, living will and, even, DNA swabs.

The Financial Planning Association recommends storing all important documents in a fireproof, lockable emergency box. Something light enough to carry out of your home with ease. You can buy boxes that fit this description almost anywhere including Target and Office Depot for around $50.

Bank safe deposit boxes are another option although you may not have access to the contest if the bank you use is in a disaster zone that has been evacuated. The American Red Cross recommends renting a safe-deposit box outside your area. Another issue to consider is the fact that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which insures bank deposits up to $100,000, does not insure the contents of safe-deposit boxes. If you rent a safe-deposit box you should ask whether the bank’s hazard insurance covers the contents. Your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance may also cover safe-deposit box contents.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency teamed up in 2004 with Citizen Corps and Operation Hope – two volunteer groups created by the Department of Homeland Security – to create a 22-page Emergency Financial First Aid Kit, or EFFAK, which is downloadable at www.ready.gov. The kit provides a checklist for safeguarding financial and legal documents. In addition to all the documents already mentioned, the kit prompts users through a lengthy list of personal information and contacts such as names, addresses, and the contact information of employers, supervisors, attorneys, lawyers and financial planners.

A third option is available courtesy of the Information Age: electronic archival. Companies like MyMedicalRecords.com and EIS-Network.com enable consumers to upload copies of all their important documents. The documents are encrypted and stored on a redundant, secure server accessible with a personal identification number. MyMedicalRecords.com gives customers a toll-free number.

Although they were both designed to store vital medical records such as do no resuscitate orders and living wills, both companies allow users to archive all important documents, including legal, financial and medical records. MyMedicalRecords.com charges $8.95 per month or $79.95 annually to store the records of a family of six. EIS-Network charges $5 per month for the first year and $2.95 per month for every year thereafter.

You can also scan and archive your own important records on a CD or DVD or USB flash drive.

Please contact Catherine Hockmuth directly at cmhockmuth@yahoo.com with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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