Disaster survival plan is essential if catastrophe strikes

Brian O'Connell

You live well outside of Tornado Alley, you're not near any large rivers and your area hasn't experienced an earthquake in a long time. Besides, if anything happens, you have home insurance.

But disaster can strike anywhere at any time -- and your insurance isn't worth much if your family doesn't escape safely in the first place. That's why it's vital to have an evacuation plan in place and a disaster survival kit at the ready.

Unprepared for disaster

The American Red Cross responds to nearly 70,000 disasters in the United States every year, according to spokeswoman Attie Porier. Those disasters include house fires, wildfires, floods and hurricanes.

"It is incredibly important that everyone get prepared for the unexpected," Porier says. "The American Red Cross encourages everyone to take three simple steps -- get a kit, make a plan and be informed."

Unfortunately, most people aren't prepared. A survey by disaster safety communications firm Cote & D'Ambrosi found that 39 percent of Americans had created a family disaster plan. That means 61 percent of Americans don't have a disaster plan in place.

The Insurance Information Institute conducted a study on how long it takes people to evacuate their homes, according to spokeswoman Loretta Worters. The study found that by the time many folks were ready to evacuate, it would have been too late for them to get out safely had they been facing a real disaster.

The study spurred the Insurance Information Institute to develop the "10-Minute Challenge," a program that tests how quickly real families can get out of their homes with all the belongings they need. When natural disasters strike, people have only a few minutes to get out of their houses, Worters says. So it's essential that they know what they'll need to take with them in advance -- necessities like medicines and important documents, including their insurance policies.

"If you don't have your insurance policies, that's a problem," Worters says. "The only way to get insurance payments going is to have your insurance policy number and the name of your insurance agent."

Creating a disaster survival kit

There's no telling how long you'll be away from home in a disaster's aftermath. You may spend days without electricity or a way to get supplies. So it's a good idea to create disaster survival kit.

According to the American Red Cross, disaster supply kits should contain enough food, water and other basic supplies for each family member including pets) to last at least three days. Medications should last seven days.

Other useful items to pack include:

  • A flashlight.
  • A first aid kit.
  • Cash ATMs might not work in the days after a disaster).
  • A map of the area.
  • Rain gear.
  • Towels.
  • Blankets.
  • Matches.

In addition to making sure you have food and shelter, you'll want to keep your finances in order amid the post-disaster chaos. The National Foundation for Credit Counseling provides the following tips for a financial survival kit:

  • Have a checklist in place before emergency strikes and review it before leaving your home.
  • Gather all financial records in one place and make copies. Store original documents in a safe deposit box, and consider buying a fireproof safe for your home to store copies of the documents. Not everyone who lives in your home may be present when disaster strikes, so make sure all family members know where your safe is located, and instruct them to bring it with them when evacuating.
  • Inform a trusted friend or family member where documents are located. Someone outside of your residence should be aware of the off-site location where your documents are housed.
  • Make a list of all financial institutions where you do business, including brokerage firms. Be sure to include contact information and account numbers.
  • Have the contact information of your insurance agent, as well as the policy in hand when you make a claim. Be sure you fully understand your coverage and deductibles. An emergency is no time to find out about coverage gaps.
  • Have a complete household inventory in an off-site location. Pictures or videos of your possessions will make claims much easier; the last thing you want to do under stress is rely on your memory.
  • Have service provider information easily accessible to stop or transfer your bills. If your residence is uninhabitable or totally destroyed, notify your utility companies and other service companies, such as the phone company, so they can stop billing immediately. A utility company often will transfer service to a new address in case of a disaster and will waive initial connection charges.

You might never need your home disaster kit -- but, if you do, it can mean the difference between survival and tragedy.

"Every disaster is another reminder that emergencies can happen anywhere, anytime, and that everyone should take steps now to be prepared for all possible risks and hazards in their communities," says Darryl Madden, director of the Ready Campaign for the Federal Emergency Management Agency FEMA).

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