Last week, we stated that we would discuss the rates of HIV/AIDS among seniors in our blog this week, but events of the past week made us decide to do a blog about the importance of keeping personal records that can be retrieved in the event of a personal or wide-spread disaster.
We don't often think about how we would recover from a catastrophic event because we don't want to think such an event could happen to us. But should the unthinkable happen, just what will come next? What will be your plan?
As we go through life, we accumulate a wide array of valuable documents, some that we think about on a daily basis – like credit cards or driver's licenses – and others, like life insurance policies or tax records, that only come to mind when we need them. Perhaps these documents are in a junk drawer, piled high in a closet or in boxes in the basement. Or, you may have discarded them inadvertently during a spring cleaning.
But what happens if you need them and can you get your hands on important documents in an emergency?
This past week, a Hurricane in the Carolinas and a series of explosions and fires in three towns just north of Boston showed just how important it is to be able to retrieve important documents in order for the process of recovery to begin.
According to CBS News, Moody's Analytics, an economic consulting firm, stated that Hurricane Florence could result in between $17 billion and $22 billion in lost economic output and property damage, putting the storm in the top 10 of costliest hurricanes to hit the U.S. Other economists cautioned that this estimate could be revised significantly higher as more information comes in on the extent of inland flooding.
Interviews with those living in the states affected by the flooding report losing a lifetime of memories, paperwork and property, including important documents that may be needed to begin the process of recovery.
Trying to recover even the most basic information like duplicate driver’s licenses or social security cards may take longer than anticipated if those agencies that issue these documents have also been affected by the storm. And when someone is living in a shelter or need assistance to return to some semblance of order, every day that goes by without help adds additional stress to an already horrific situation.
Meanwhile, on the afternoon of September 13th in Massachusetts, residents of three towns were hit with another type of disaster – explosions and fires as a result of a gas delivery malfunction in lines owned by Columbia Gas.
According to the Lowell Sun, a series of gas explosions left one young man dead at dozens injured while igniting fires in scores of homes in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover.
The explosions forced entire neighborhoods to evacuate and drew emergency responders from as far away as Boston and Manchester, N.H. to battle the flames and engage in protective measures to ensure further explosions did not occur. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency and evacuated thousands of people from their homes. They were not permitted to start returning home until the following Sunday, September 16th.
On Monday, September 17, Columbia Gas had representatives stationed at a
High School Learning Center in Lawrence to help residents start to recover from the incident. This included giving gift cards ranging from $50 to $300 to customers, depending on how many were in the family. As the day wore on, the line grew to thousands and stretched around corners, testing the patience of citizens who just wanted some sense of normalcy.
The claim center was in such high demand that waiting had turned into a two-day process -- waiting in line for a ticket that placed the customer in line for assistance the next day. This was not received well by many residents and according to one woman, the company was asking for paperwork as proof of residence that could not be produced because it was destroyed in the explosion and subsequent fire.
She stated angrily, "Where am I going to come up with identification so quickly? I need identification to get identification and I don't have anything. It was destroyed, what am I supposed to do?"
In the case of Hurricane Florence, people had days to prepare for the storm and a chance to gather paperwork but when someone is making sure their basic needs will be met, documents may be the last thing on their minds. But at least there was time.
For those victimized by the Massachusetts' gas line explosions, the emergency began – without warning – at approx. 4:45 pm on the 13th of September and less than four hours later, residents were told to evacuate and were not permitted to return to their homes. Their wasn't even enough time to grab a clean pair of socks.
So what should be done to prepare for such an event? Here are a few ideas.
The ideal way to protect documents of all types in your home is to keep them in waterproof or fireproof containers. Another option is keeping your documents off-site. That could mean a safe deposit box at a bank or at your attorney's office. It could also mean having copies of everything in a secure location at a friend's or relative's house in another location.
We also suggest that you take photos of your property on a regular basis and save it in a file that can be uploaded to an offsite server or cloud service. Storage on a flash drive is also important as long as it is kept offsite.
And according to the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), the following documents should be stored in a safe place:
Vital records: Driver's licenses, birth certificates, adoption papers, Social Security cards, passports, citizenship papers, child custody papers, military IDs, and records/photos for any pets as well as ID chip numbers if applicable.
Insurance policies: You will want at least the policy number and contact information for your homeowners, renters, flood, earthquake, auto, life, health, disability, long-term care, and any other policies.
Property records: Real estate deeds of trust and at least the two-page settlement document from any mortgages, auto/boat/RV registration and titles; and a video or pictures inventorying your possessions.
Medical information: Prescription information (drug name and dosage), health insurance identification cards, physician names and phone numbers, powers of attorney for healthcare, and living wills.
Estate planning documents: Wills, trusts, funeral instructions, powers of attorney, attorney names and phone numbers.
Financial records: First two pages of your previous year's federal and state tax returns, list of stocks/bonds, brokerage and retirement account info, credit card, checking and savings account numbers, as well as the associated contacts.
In a worse case scenario, not having your insurance policy number after a natural disaster or weather event, doesn't mean you don't have insurance because you do. Having the papers, however, makes getting your needs met easier at a time when many providers will be overwhelmed.
And since we live in a high tech world, storage of passwords are also something to consider. Imagine keeping documents on a disk or the cloud and then, in the midst of an emergency, they cannot be retrieved because you cannot remember the password.
Although we have discussed what an individual needs to keep safe, it is also important for businesses to have similar plans in place, including a business continuity plan. Imagine someone who has kept all their documents and calls an insurance company for help only to find out that they have also been affected by the event and cannot retrieve records.
“Most large companies and organizations have records stored offsite and can recover quickly,” said certified elder law attorney RJ Connelly III, “but smaller businesses may not have that capability. Having a business continuity plan in place is imperative. We have one and can be up and running quickly should such an event occur – we have back-ups to back-ups in order to protect our client’s information and confidentiality. Such a plan allows a business to function successfully after the crisis has passed, getting back quickly to where it was before the interruption and providing needed services to their clients.”
And when power is out, there is more to be concerned about than not just having light and television, for example, where will you get cash if the banks cannot open?
“Here in the Northeast, we face hurricanes, floods and Nor’easters which could disrupt power for days and even weeks,” continued Connelly. “We recommend that having three to five days’ worth of cash on hand is important. It also means keeping this money in a safe place. Remember, if your power is out, so is the power for ATMs and grocery stores making it impossible to conduct business using credit and debit cards. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy resulted in power interruptions for weeks in parts of southern New England." I
Connelly Law has developed a document for you to list your most important documents and emergency contacts. We suggest this list be kept with a trusted relative, in a safe deposit box or with your attorney. This list should be reviewed at least annually and updated as needed. You can see it below.
"When an emergency occurs, there isn't a whole lot of time to think about grabbing papers when you're trying to keep your loved ones safe", said Attorney Connelly. "Taking the time now to organize and list your important documents and personal information will ease the anxiety and stress that occurs during such a crisis. When it comes to preparedness, there's a quote that comes to mind, 'stay ready so you won't need to get ready'. It's something we should all live by."
To download, print and use this document, click on the photo below.
Attorney Connelly practices in the area of elder law. This area of law involves Medicaid planning and asset protection advice for those individuals entering nursing homes, planning for the possibility of disability through the use of powers of attorney for the both health care and finances, guardianship, estate planning, probate and estate administration, preparation of wills, living trusts and special or supplemental needs trusts. He represents clients primarily in the states of Rhode Island, Connecticut and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was certified as an Elder Law Attorney (CELA) by the National Elder Law Foundation (NELF) in 2008. Attorney Connelly is licensed to practice before the Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Federal Bars.