What Would You Grab If Your House Were on Fire?

House fire
House fire

Occasionally, I play a grim game I call "Grab and Run" -- a mental exercise in which I plan which items I would take with me were I to flee an impending disaster, such as a tornado, hurricane or flood. It goes something like this: dog, leash, sneakers (the cute ones), cell phone, saline solution, photo album, mascara and iPod.

Everyone plays this game, right? No? Just me?

Fine, so my occasional forays into catastrophic fantasyland may be a sign of a low-level anxiety disorder. Still, preparation is the best defense against the demons of disaster. If a fire, flood, killer bee swarm or alien invasion happened right now, how prepared would you be to deal with the aftermath?

The Right Way to Worry

While having a beekeeper's suit or a personal bomb shelter might help you rest easier at night, there are more practical ways to protect your treasures.

Personal safety always comes first, of course. But after that, insurance companies and state and federal agencies bear the burden of helping families rebuild and replace material possessions. However, it's not the blender that brings most families comfort and joy. It's peace of mind.

When wildfires threatened estate planner and author Martin Kuritz's home in California, he realized the value of things he could never replace: a five-page letter his mother wrote to him before she passed away and a stack of letters his dad sent to his mom during World War II. His important papers, documents and computer files were also threatened.

Fortunately, Kuritz's home and possessions were spared. But the scare inspired him to develop a list of tips to help others avoid the tragedy of losing irreplaceable belongings and a family's legacy. These include keeping a small fireproof/watertight safe and plastic file boxes around to both protect such treasures and make them easily portable.

8 Ways to Safeguard Your Financial House

Safeguarding beloved belongings is only part of the preparation process. Every year we get plenty of extreme weather reminders that underscore the importance of disaster-proofing our financial houses as well as our physical ones. Just ask anyone who has had to recreate a lifetime paper trail with waterlogged wills and insurance policies.

Here are eight tips on keeping financial damage to a minimum:

1. Open a safe deposit box at your local bank. Make sure it's large enough to accommodate your valuables, and keep an updated inventory of its contents. Also make sure the box can be accessed by another trusted person should you be unable to do so.

2. Make paper and/or electronic copies (or get duplicates) of every important document in your file cabinet. These include wills, trusts, health-care directives, and powers of attorney. If you don't have these documents in place already, here's how to get started. If you need help setting up a solid estate plan, a fee-only financial pro can help.

3. Store these documents and any others containing confidential or sensitive data in your safe deposit box or home fire-proof safe. A safe is also a good spot for your spare keys, irreplaceable items, and valuables (such as jewelry and coin and stamp collections). Originals or duplicates of photos, negatives, and other paperwork should be kept off-premises -- at your office, perhaps, or a trusted friend's home.

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4. Maintain a current listof secret passwords, access codes, PINs, the combination of your home safe (or the location of the spare key), and other confidential data. Store this and other confidential information (along with the spare key to your safe deposit box) at a secure, but readily accessible, location.

5. Make important items portable. Items that cannot be photocopied and/or must be kept at your home should be stored in portable file boxes. Write "Take" on the tops and sides of the boxes and store them in a place where they can be easily accessed in the event you are forced to evacuate. Keep an empty file box at the ready for the contents of your home safe. If you are planning to be away, consider storing these items with someone who can remove and/or protect them should a disaster occur in your absence.

6. Make a current inventory. A room-by-room written (or video) inventory of all of your possessions will help speed the process of insurance claims should it come to that. Include items in your garage, basement, and attic, plus serial numbers, dates of purchase, and purchase prices where applicable. Store this information in your safe deposit box.

7. Create Command Central for your family. Life is complicated, and unfortunately, so is death or incapacitation. If you were unable, would your loved ones be capable of taking over the family finances in a pinch? You can make it easier on your family with a "Grab-and-Go" box containing all the key information needed to keep your finances on track. See "Get It Done: Create a Grab-and-Go Box" for a rundown of items to include.

8. Preserve the memory of items like artwork and plaques by taking digital photos of them to be stored off-premises. During an evacuation, it might be hard to cart off a sculpture while wrangling dogs and kids. The same goes for computer data. Back up your hard drive frequently and store it in the safe, in the cloud or off-site.

Start with one or two items on this list and work your way down. Doing so will ensure that your stuff will be around for future generations ... so that they can play "Grab and Run," too.

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