Keeping Your Finances Secure During Natural Disasters

The summer before my junior year in college I waitressed at a local restaurant. By the middle of August, I was working double shifts almost every day. I was one of the few “locals” who could continue working until Labor Day because I did not need to go home before returning to school. I was exhausted and all I wanted was a little time off to relax before heading back. (As if a 20-year-old with no other responsibilities needs a break.) Over the weekend of the Falmouth Road Race, we were warned that a hurricane was making its way toward the Cape. Thinking that the power might go out, I couldn’t help but feel a bit excited at the idea of having a couple days off from work. Have you ever heard the expression “Be careful what you wish for!”? I got more than a couple days of vacation time. It was 1991 and Hurricane Bob washed out the dining room floor of the restaurant where I worked. We were closed for the rest of the summer.

Although we have been relatively lucky here on the Cape and have stayed out of the direct path of most hurricanes since then, as you all know, natural disasters have been stealing the headlines in recent weeks. We have all heard about Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, new hurricanes brewing in the Atlantic, and the forest fires hitting the West Coast. What is particularly stressful and frightening about these events is that we cannot control them. We can board up windows and send hotshot crews to battle the fires but, for the most part, we are at the mercy of Mother Nature. However, there are ways to be proactive to help protect our finances in times of crisis.

Now, I understand that compared to your family’s safety, your home, and your community as you know it, your finances may seem insignificant; but protecting your finances can provide some measure of peace during an otherwise stressful situation. Let me share some ideas of how to help protect yourself financially, if you are ever facing such an event.

With respect to insurance, in order to make the claims process as painless as possible, review your policy—before you have suffered any damage. Oftentimes, people assume certain items and/or events are covered under their policy, when they are not. Although it may be too late to make any changes to your policy by the time a storm or other natural disaster is imminent, it is also important to note what your responsibilities are to maintain your coverages; responsibilities such as boarding up your windows.

Before a potentially damaging event, you should also find your insurer’s and insurance agent’s contact information, so you will be able to reach them when it is time to file a claim. It helps, also, to take pictures of your property before there is any damage. If possible, along with the pictures make an inventory of personal property detailing the original costs and serial numbers. This may not be possible to do for all of your things, but worth it at least for the big-ticket items.

Beforehand, it is also important to secure important documents, including things such as financial statements, insurance policies, birth certificates, passports, wills, titles and driver’s licenses. You do not want to risk losing the information contained in these documents and some of it you may need immediately after a disaster. So, take pictures of them or scan them to save them to a secure digital location, or protect them in a safe or vault. It’s better to plan for the worst and hope for the best than be left without the information you need.

It is also helpful to make a plan for your recurring bills that will be due in the weeks following a natural disaster. If they are small bills that you know you will have the funds to pay, consider setting up autopay for those, so you do not miss any payments. This is especially important if you usually receive your bills in the mail, which might not be possible following a major weather event. If you are not sure you will be able to cover the bills, it is wise to call your lenders and service providers. They often will work with people in these situations to either reduce minimum payments or extend a grace period on due dates until a customer gets back on their feet.

Of course, the best financial defense to these natural disasters is a good offense. This means having an emergency fund available. Such a fund can help pay to remedy any damages following an event, but also can help you evacuate prior to one. An emergency fund can provide money for gas, food, shelter, and whatever else you may need that you aren’t able to take with you if you leave your home to seek safety.

Following a storm, fire, or other incident, you need to file a timely insurance claim for any damage you may have suffered. The sooner you do this, the sooner the claims process can begin and the sooner you will receive reimbursement to fix or replace damaged property.

With many of these natural disasters, you may also be able to seek federal and local disaster assistance. These programs may offer income replacement for temporary unemployment due to a natural disaster. They may also provide supplies for basic needs and temporary shelter for people displaced from their homes.

I was lucky in 1991. I only lost a few weeks of tips. But others have lost significantly more than that, from Hurricane Bob and from the many other natural disasters that have affected our country in the years since then. As we continue to support our fellow Americans in their long journey to rebuild and regain a sense of normalcy, remember to be vigilant and stay alert with respect to your own finances.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to all of those struggling in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, as well as those on the West Coast battling forest fires.