Natural disasters have devastated the United States recently, from Harvey and Irma to the fires in the Pacific Northwest. The impacts of climate change make it very likely that similar events will occur in the future, and for those of us fortunate enough to have escaped the wrath of the recent crises, now is an excellent time to assess our own situations and develop a plan for how to react if our homes are threatened in the future.
Disaster preparedness plans are a standard practice in the museum world and can be easily adapted for private citizens. By identifying your desired action steps in advance you can reduce stress when a real emergency is occurring and help prevent forgetting a cherished heirloom that you would regret losing in a disaster.
Before I begin with my tips, I have a crucial PSA. While I may work in the realm of inanimate objects, I firmly believe that living creatures come first. Save your family members and pets above all. Objects can be replaced. Living things can't. If you have time constraints and need to choose what is saved, focus on the loved ones and animals.
It has been heartbreaking and disappointing to read the multitude of news stories about dogs and cats left behind in the wake of Harvey and Irma, a disturbing number of them abandoned opportunistically. If you enjoy the gift of sharing your life with an animal, I implore you to develop a plan in advance for their safe evacuation with you. Make sure you have a crate or carrying case that will comfortably accommodate your pet, and prepare a list in advance of items they would need such as any medications and favorite toys. If you have not micro-chipped your pet so you can be reunited if separated, please make sure your pet is wearing a harness with clear identification tags with your name and phone number. Rabies vaccination tags or locality license tags can also work for identification, but it takes much longer to have the records researched and linked to your name, and that is also reliant on the records still existing (and not underwater or burned up).
If my home is on fire, the only thing I'm grabbing is the dog.
If I have the luxury of time, these are some of the steps I would take before I evacuate:
-Gather and pack all medications for family members.
-Pack your passport and other difficult-to-replace important documents (birth certificates, Social Security certificates, vehicle titles, etc.) If you don't have electronic billing, it may be helpful to take a box or binder of current accounts so you can keep up with your bills and maintain your credit score even if you can't yet return home.
-Pack at least a week's worth of your clothing, and consider adding items like winter coats that would be expensive to replace, even if they are currently out of season.
-Pack portable electronics like laptops or iPads, or if your computer is a large desktop model, consider investing in a portable hard drive to back up your computer's contents that you can take with you and use to restore a damaged machine or transfer your files to a new one.
-Prepare a "go-list" in advance of meaningful jewelry items you wouldn't want to lose, so you can grab them quickly in the event of an emergency and won't overlook a treasured piece because you are stressed and rushing.
-Consider if there are family photos you would hate to lose, and take the time to prepare a "go-album" of the images most special to you so you can grab it quickly if you have to evacuate. It's also a great idea to scan the most cherished images and store an electronic version in a cloud-based location (you may wish to have a service that provides security, or a simple free version is a Google Drive album). This way, if the original photographs are damaged or lost, you at least still have the digital version that can be accessed and downloaded later from a cloud location that isn't reliant on your house still standing. While you are selecting and scanning, this is also a wonderful opportunity to share with children or family members WHY certain photos are important to you, and to write down who is in the images and what happened on that day. So often this information is lost through the generations, and with it, many happy stories and a sense of connection with one's ancestors.
-If you have family sterling silver flatware and the space to take it in your car, this is a smart category of antique to bring with you as it also functions as a liquid asset. The current market for china and crystal is too soft to recommend bringing it unless you have strong sentimental attachments to a particular service, in which case please feel free to save it. Art doesn't handle temperature and humidity fluctuations well, and if you own a very small, very expensive painting, it might make sense to tuck it in the car with you rather than risk leaving it in the house.
-For larger items in the home that are too big to take, now is a good time to review your insurance coverage and make sure you are comfortable with your current level of protection. Pull out your homeowner's or renter's policy and read through it carefully. If your house burns down/floods/is destroyed by a tornado, what financial compensation would you receive from your insurance company? What level of documentation would you need to provide to complete your insurance claim? Would you need to have an appraisal report already on file, or could you obtain one after the fact? If your house burned down, do you have pictures of the items you lost for an appraiser to work from?
If you are confused about your policy or have questions about confirming your exact level of coverage, don't hesitate to call up your insurance agent to discuss your policy. It often doesn't make financial sense to have an appraisal report prepared for all of the art, antiques, and furnishings in your home, but many insurance companies have a monetary ceiling for coverage where they require an appraisal report on all items above this amount (the exact amount varies by company) or else you won't receive full compensation in the event of loss. Determining your current coverage is sufficient, or finding out you should obtain a USPAP-compliant appraisal report for a handful of items in your home that exceed the ceiling, can help bring you additional peace of mind and take the steps needed in advance to make sure you are well protected. From personal experience, I can attest as an appraiser that it is much easier to prepare an insurance appraisal of an item in good condition than a damage claim appraisal of an item in poor condition.
Even if your current coverage is sufficient, I strongly recommend walking through your home and taking what we call in the field "room shots" of everything in your home. Take overall photographs of paintings and details of artist signatures, and capture each room from multiple angles to document all items in a room. Whether on a standard camera or your phone, make sure you store a version of these photos electronically in a cloud-based location (for your security, don't include your address in the file names or in any other place associated with the images). That way, if your house is gone, the photos documenting its interior haven't disappeared with it.
Hopefully these preparations will be for events that never occur, but being proactive in advance can help ensure that you and your family remain safe and your most cherished belongings are also spared from harm.