We often talk about having a bugout bag that includes a folder with important documents, but despite your preparations and efforts to protect them, sometimes disaster strikes quickly and unexpectedly, and those documents are lost.
For example, the fires last week in Northern California moved so rapidly that some people fled from their homes without even a moment to put on their shoes. (See these videos for an idea of how dramatic the escapes were for many families.)
Although it’s not always the first thing people think of, in the event of a fire, flood, tornado, or other natural disaster, important documents can be lost or damaged beyond recognition.
The loss of vital documents can make it difficult to function in today’s society. Replacing documents is one of the first steps you’ll need to take. After a disaster, you’ll need identification, proof of citizenship, and proof of ownership before you can begin to rebuild your life.
Be Proactive Before a Disaster
Many of the major stressors after a disaster can be lessened by taking these vital steps before anything bad actually occurs.
1.) Photograph all important documents and store them securely in the cloud. (This report from Boston University provides tips on how to do so.)
2.) Keep photocopies of documents in a secure location away from your property. Consider procuring a safety deposit box for this purpose. (I have copies of all of our information at the home of a family member in another state.)
3.) Scan documents and save them on a password protected USB drive that you keep in a different location. This one is particularly secure and has an automatic cloud back-up.
Protect Important Documents
There are some steps you can take to protect documents from fire and flood damage, but these are not foolproof.
Invest in a good quality fire-proof safe. However, keep in mind that fire-proof isn’t going to necessarily hold up to an inferno like the ones we’ve seen in California recently. The safe I recommend here has excellent reviews, but note the manufacturer’s classifications:
Advance fire-protection- UL Classified for fire endurance ( 1 hour at 1700 f/927 C )
ETL verified for 1 hour fire protection of CD’s, DVD’s, memory sticks and USB drives
ETL verified water resistance up to 8 inches for 24 hours
What to do if your documents are damaged or destroyed
Vital documents must be replaced quickly and efficiently. Keep track of any fees you incur to replace these documents. Your homeowners or renters policy will most likely cover the cost. Below you’ll find the steps you need to take to replace a variety of documents. Links to helpful websites and documents are underlined and bolded.
The first thing you’ll want to replace is your birth certificate. You will need this to get your other documentation. Visit your county records office and explain the situation for an expedited copy of a notarized birth certificate.
Driver License and Auto Registration
Contact your local DMV to talk with them about your situation. They’ll let you know what their requirements are for getting your documents replaced. You may have to wait until you have your birth certificate in hand to get a new license. Some DMVs will issue a temporary license while you’re waiting.
Social Security Card
You’ll have to apply for this in person at your nearest Social Security Administration office. This web page will tell you what documents you need for both children and adults before your appointment.
You can apply online for a lost passport. The information can be found at the US State Department’s website.
Go to any office of the Veterans Administration, American Legion, VFW, a service recruiter, or Red Cross. You’ll need Standard Form 180 (SF-180). If you have access to a printer, you can download the form HERE. If you’re a veteran, you’ll need these records for medical treatment from the VA and for your benefits.
Your insurance company will be able to help you quickly and efficiently by replacing your homeowner’s or rental insurance policy, life insurance policy, and automobile policy. As well, they’ll be able to point you in the right direction for the next steps you should take. Many policies will provide a stipend to meet your immediate needs for shelter, food, and clothing, and they’ll explain what you need to do to file a claim for your losses.
If you use an accountant, they should be able to provide copies of all of your tax records. If you do your taxes yourself, contact the nearest IRS office (find it HERE) or call 1-800-829-3646. (Often the 800 number has very long wait times to speak to a representative.) You can download Form 4506 online at THIS WEBPAGE.
Firearms Records and Permits
If you have lost firearms that are registered to you, you must report the loss to your local law enforcement and the ATF. If the guns were not actually destroyed but were taken by someone scavenging through the rubble of your home, there could be ramifications if they commit a crime using your guns. (And let’s face it, anyone scavenging through the remains of someone’s destroyed home has questionable morals to start with.)
The ATF will have you fill out THIS FORM.
Contact the issuing sheriff’s department for replacement of your CCW permit.
Your first step should be to go to your local branch and get your debit card replaced. It may take up to a week for your replacement to arrive. The difficulty here lies in whether or not you have a relationship with your bank. If they know you, you may be able to do this without ID. Otherwise, this may have to wait until you have a copy of you birth certificate.
These are the phone numbers for major credit card companies. You’ll need to call and speak with a representative. Explain your situation and ask for an emergency replacement to be expedited to you to meet your immediate needs. You’ll be able to pay this off when you receive your insurance money.
- MasterCard: 1-800-622-7747
- Visa: 1-800-847-2911
- American Express: 1-800-528-4800
- Discover: 1-800-347-2683
Visit your county records office to get a copy of the deed to your property.
Marriage or Divorce Records
Marriage records are available from the county clerk’s office in which the licenses were issued. Divorce records are available from the Superior Court that granted the decree.
Immigration Documents and Green Cards
Contact the US Citizenship and Immigration Service if you need documents to verify citizenship, immigration, permanent resident card (green card), employment authorization, or a re-entry permit.
FEMA offers the following advice for replacing money that was damaged in the disaster.
Handle burned money as little as possible. Try to place each bill or part of a bill in plastic wrap to help preserve it. If money is partly burned—if half or more is still ok—you can take the part that is left to your regional Federal Reserve Bank to get it replaced.
Ask your bank for the one nearest you, or you can take the burned or torn money to the Post Office and mail it by “registered mail, return receipt requested” to:
Department of the Treasury
Bureau of Engraving and Printing Office of Currency Standards
P.O. Box 37048
Washington, DC 20013
Damaged or melted coins may be taken to your regional Federal Reserve Bank or mailed by “registered mail, return receipt requested” to:
P.O. Box 400
Philadelphia, PA 19105
To replace U.S. Savings Bonds that are destroyed or mutilated, get the Department of Treasury Form PD F 1048 (I) from your bank or at www.ustreas.gov and mail to:
Department of the Treasury
Bureau of the Public Debt Savings Bonds Operations
P.O. Box 1328
Parkersburg, WV 26106-1328
Don’t be too proud to accept help
If you’ve lost everything in a disaster, don’t be afraid to accept help. Those of us who witness the loss want to assist you while you get back on your feet. While you do see the worst in people, like looters and scavengers, disasters can also bring out the best in your neighbors.
On the same venue, when disaster strikes, see what you can do to help. If you have extra clothing, bedding, furniture, or food, it can be of great help and comfort to someone who needs a hand up. Assistance need not always be limited to the practical. Items like toys or books can provide a big psychological boost to a family who has lost everything. Be generous, for someday it could be you in that situation.