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Investing Specialists

How to Prepare for a Natural Disaster

Financial planner Sue Stevens shares tips for overall preparedness in emergency situations.

As Hurricane Irma approaches the southeastern U.S. and the Houston area copes with the immense physical damage and human toll wrought by Hurricane Harvey, many individuals have opened their hearts to help. Truckloads of donated goods have been barreling into the Houston area over the past week, and many employers are matching their employees on their own financial contributions. (Check with your employer to see if this is an option.)

In addition to sparking generosity, natural disasters get us all thinking about how we would cope in a similar emergency situation. What would we grab if we had to leave our homes in a hurry? How would we make sure our loved ones were all accounted for?

Sue Stevens, a financial planner and head of Stevens Wealth Management in Deerfield, Illinois, makes a habit of discussing those issues with her clients. We sought her advice on the financial and other aspects of disaster planning in this Q&A.

Q: Being financially prepared means being prepared for whatever life throws at us, including natural (or other) disasters. What's your guidance to people who have been affected by the recent storms? 

A: The first step is to restore household stability. The Red Cross can help you find emergency shelter. If your area has been declared a federal disaster area, you may qualify for financial relief. Your property insurance agent may be able to help you file a claim on your homeowners' or other types of insurance policies.

If you or someone you know have been injured, you may need to file for disability benefits. If you have this type of coverage through your employer, give your human resource representative a call. If you have coverage outside of your company, call the insurance company to file a claim. If you are OK but a family member needs your care, you may be able to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act without losing your job. To find out more, contact the U.S. Department of Labor at 1-866-487-9243 or

Q: Some people who have been affected by the recent storms were forced to evacuate with little warning. What do you advise people to be sure to bring with them if they are in this position?

A: For starters, it's valuable to put together essential documents that you can grab if you need to evacuate quickly. On the short list would be the following: 

• Online passwords
• Financial account numbers
• Checkbook, savings passbook, other sources of financial assets
• Insurance policy numbers and contact information
• Medical records including prescription drug information (think about scanning these to a jump drive and always carrying them)
• Investment account and retirement account numbers and access information
• Debit card or ATM card (you may want to get enough cash for a couple of weeks to cover emergencies) 

Q: In addition to those papers, what else should people be ready to grab? 

A: It might sound extreme, but I like the idea of putting together a "go bag." It should contain cash, clothes, and important papers. In addition, keep a list of what you need to grab if you're forced to leave your home in a hurry. That would include enough water and nonperishable food to get you through an immediate crisis. (Don't forget the pets!) Also be sure to prepare a first-aid kit that includes bandages, gauze, antibiotic cream, aspirin, and so forth, as well as a survival kit with flashlights, a radio, new batteries, various tools, and clothes.

In addition, have important medications that will last you a week. Don't wait until your prescription is empty to refill it. Keep a phone charger in your car in case you need to charge it there, as well as emergency supplies like a first aid kit, a flashlight, and a blanket or two. Make sure you can fit all of those items, plus your loved ones and pets, in the car before you have to go.

Q: For many of us, our phones are our Swiss Army Knives. What information should we be sure to have on our phones? 

A: Be sure that you have crucial contact information. That means family cellphone numbers and email addresses; police, fire, and ambulance phone numbers; the phone number for your local Red Cross office; the phone number for your local emergency response center, and your employer's human resource center contact information.

Q: You're also a believer in having your clients inventory their homes' contents. How should they do that? 

A: I speak from personal experience in knowing that you may need to have a room-by-room list of your belongings including photos of each room and its contents. Keep records of the cost of more expensive items. Much of this can be scanned and kept online. It won't help you to keep a hard copy at home if your home is part of the disaster.

Q: You also advise people to run through a disaster contingency drill once a year. What does that entail? 

A: For starters, make sure that all adults in the house know how to shut off the water, gas, and electricity. And all family members should know how to use a fire extinguisher. Have you tested the fire extinguishers lately? 

You should also discuss multiple escape routes from your home, where to meet if the family should be separated at the time disaster hits, and make sure that someone is in charge of getting the family pets out. Practice escaping the house if the usual entry ways are blocked.