By Erin Baehr

Originally published in the Pocono Record, September 1, 2011

As Hurricane Irene was knocking on our doors just a couple of weeks ago, many of us stocked up on bottled water, found our flashlights, and filled up the bathtubs.  We prepared as best we could for the physical damage potentially coming our way.  Preparing financially for a disaster is just as important and sometimes forgotten as we rush out for milk and bread.  Now is the time to review our emergency plans while Irene is fresh in our minds, and add a financial disaster plan as well.

First, some general preparations we all should take, no matter how blue the sky:  ideally, we should have 10% of our annual income in a safe emergency account we can access immediately, and another 20% of our annual income or 20% of our outstanding mortgage balance, whichever is greater, in additional reserve.  This should also be in interest earning vehicles rather than exposed to the stock market, but perhaps in certificates of deposit or longer term interest earning investments.  Online savings accounts are useful for emergency funds, as the money is safe but out of sight, out of mind.  Those amounts may seem insurmountable, but don’t be discouraged.  Start small and be faithful.  In a world where things seem so out of our control, working on a goal like this can go a long way toward the peace of mind that comes from doing something to improve the situation.  Track your spending so you know where you stand; take a good look to see if you can easily cut some things out of the budget now and stash the cash you save.  Note where you could cut deeper if need be.  If you don’t already have one, open a home equity or other line of credit, for an extra safety net should you experience a financial catastrophe.

Review your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance policy to familiarize yourself with your coverage and deductible.  Save up the amount of your deductible and stash it away with your emergency fund.  As many people discovered recently, a standard homeowner’s policy does not cover sump pump failure or flood damage.  If you have a sump pump, inquire with your insurance company about the availability of a special endorsement or rider to cover failure or backup.  Even in historically dry areas, purchasing flood insurance is worth the reasonable cost.  Storms don’t read the flood maps.  Information on sample rates can be found at

In the unfortunate event that you need to file a claim on your insurance, it is helpful to have a video or still inventory of your belongings.  In times of disaster, you may not have the presence of mind to recall what was in fact in your home.  You can also use the inventory to demonstrate the quality of items you owned, to get the proper replacement.  The inventory should be stored away from your home, ideally in your safe deposit box.

Check your policy for the rules on replacement coverage for your dwelling.  Is it up to you to keep up with insuring the cost of rebuilding by raising the amount of coverage, or does the insurance company assume that responsibility?  You don’t want to get caught short and find out after disaster strikes that your policy only covers up to 125% of your very outdated limit, which isn’t even close to what it costs to rebuild your home today.

While you’re reviewing your insurances, be sure you have enough life and disability insurance should the unthinkable happen.  If you don’t have a current will, get one now, especially if you have minor children.  Think through the end of life decisions for your medical directives; can help you with your plan.  

What if you need to evacuate?  Most moms know exactly where the family photo albums are and will be sure to grab them on the way out.  But just as important are your financial albums to keep your personal economies running under any conditions.  Purchase a fireproof box, and fill with documents and items you’ll need to take with you, in sealed plastic bags.  In the box, keep an up to date list of your safe deposit box contents and the key; names and phone numbers of your tax professional, financial advisor, attorney, and insurance agents; insurance policy numbers and contact information; copies of drivers licenses and social security cards; wills; and a list of all credit, savings, and investment accounts and passwords.  Create a bill paying “map,” outlining how and when each of your bills are paid, noting websites and automatic payment dates for electronic payments.  Include mailing addresses for electronic bills as well, in case you are unable to make your payment online.  A few stamps and envelopes are helpful too.  Let a trusted family member or friend know where to find the information in the event you are incapacitated.  Keep a “check out” system for the box (and your safe deposit box too).  I know from personal experience that sometimes a passport or social security card is removed and not returned promptly; the checkout system comes in handy to remind that family member (aka kid) that he or she was the one who had it last.   

The “cloud” can come in handy here too.  A secure, online folder can be a good place to keep those lists, and access them virtually from any location with an internet connection.  Your medical directives and prior year tax returns are handy to store here as well.  Remember to back up your hard drive regularly and store off site, or use a secure online backup service.  One thing should not be stored only electronically, and that is cash.  We’ve gotten in the habit of using plastic over paper, but in the event of a true disaster, ATM’s and other electronic commerce may be down.  Keep a stash of cash in your locked box for this kind of emergency.    

Check the Internal Revenue Service website if you’ve been affected by a natural disaster; often there are special deadline extensions or tax benefits for victims.  For Irene, the extended filing and payment deadlines have been extended further to October 31 for some counties in several states including New Jersey and New York; taxpayers whose preparers were under evacuation orders or severe weather warnings but not in those counties have been given a one week extension for the September 15 filing deadline to September 22 (these payment due dates were not extended).  

Let’s hope we won’t need these emergency plans any time soon.  But with a well-stocked disaster kit and financial preparations in place, we can sit back and watch while others are scrambling to find a store that isn’t out of D batteries when the next storm comes.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a hand crank cell phone charger to buy.