June 20, 2024

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How to prepare your personal finances for an evacuation

Neighborhood and houses flooded

Neighborhood flooding can lead to mass evacuation, leaving your personal finances vulnerable. 

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Evacuations are increasingly common as climate change leads to more severe weather events. Because storms, flooding and wildfires can devastate an area suddenly, it’s vital to have your finances, important documents and property prepped in case you need to get out quickly. Successful personal finance hygiene requires protecting what you’ve built for yourself from life’s uncertainties.

Of course, we hope you and your family never face an evacuation, and we know it can be grim to think about. But applying a little effort ahead of time can help in a potentially bad situation.

Make sure you have access to cash

Your top priority should be access to liquidity. Keep some cash stashed away somewhere safe in your home. A severe weather event has the potential to knock out the power and render ATMs and credit-card processors useless. Meanwhile, you might need to pay for gas, food, water, a hotel room or other incidental expenses during an evacuation. Keep enough cash on hand to at least get you out into safety. Once you are out of the affected area, you can use your debit card or emergency credit card to pay for basic necessities.

Keep all your receipts for living expenses while you’re unable to return to your home. Though you may have to front some costs, FEMA offers various forms of financial relief for climate disaster evacuees, like temporary housing, among other things. Other organizations may be able to help with costs not covered by FEMA.

What should you bring with you in an evacuation?

While you can back up important documents to a cloud-based service, it’s quite possible that you may be limited by cell service and internet outages. As such, it’s a good idea to keep physical copies of key documents and other important information you may need to access. 

In the event of an evacuation order, there will be very little time to do any packing, so it’s crucial to have your paperwork collected before you’re impacted by a severe weather event. Some documents to gather include:

  • Driver’s licenses and applicable change-of-address addendums
  • Passports
  • Social security cards
  • Birth certificates
  • Credit and debit cards
  • Mortgage account information or lease
  • Utility/recurring bill account information
  • Medical information and proof of vaccinations
  • Tax information
  • Insurance policy information
  • Deed to car(s) and house
  • List of phone numbers (family, work, lenders, service providers)
  • Wills and other legal documents

Make sure you collect these documents for the whole family, including for your partner, parents, siblings and children. And don’t forget the paperwork for your pets. During an evacuation, it’s common to use boarding facilities for your pet, and they often require proof of vaccinations.

It may be possible to take small valuables with you in an evacuation if you’re prepared. Have a to-go bag with your paperwork and a list of valuables so you can collect them quickly. Consider including a solar-powered phone charger and anything you would need to live for a few days or weeks, such as medications. Being prepared will help ensure you don’t miss anything important.

To complement your insurance protection, maintain an inventory of the items in each room of your home. This will help keep track of items for insurance purposes in case they’re damaged or stolen. Check out our guide to documenting your possessions for emergency preparation for more details.

How to protect your home

Stay on top of your homeowners insurance policy. Regularly review your coverage and make sure there are no lapses. Typical homeowners policies will cover damage from hurricanes, tornadoes, hail, wind, lightning and volcanoes. Note that flood, earthquake and mudslide damage is typically not covered in a traditional policy. If your home is in a FEMA-designated Special Flood Hazard Area, or SFHA, then you’re required to maintain flood insurance. But you might consider it in any case. 

“Roughly 40% of properties suffering flood losses are not in SFHAs, and as homeowner policies don’t typically cover flood events, many incur significant financial loss year after year,” said Steve Murchison, vice president of MassiveCert, a flood certification company based in Florida. 

He added that flood maps are based on local hydrology studies, which have not historically accounted for climate change: “It’s a multiyear process from the time a community embarks on a new hydrology study to new FIRMs [flood insurance rate maps] becoming effective. By the time a new map is published, it’s often already ‘out of date.’ Not to say that new maps aren’t better than old ones, but flood risk for many communities is changing faster than the mapping and approval process can keep up.”

Consider your local risk factors and keep an eye on drainage problems and any issues that start to crop up during heavy rains around your home and neighborhood. Stay alert to pivot to flood coverage if you suspect your home may be getting vulnerable to severe weather events as they become more prevalent.

How to protect your car

If you have a car, you may use it to evacuate. If you have advance notice of an upcoming severe weather event, it’s a good idea to fuel up or charge your car ahead of time.

Consider the routes you would take in an emergency evacuation. You want to stay safe, but you also want to prevent expensive and unnecessary damage to your vehicle. Discern areas that may be prone to flooding, mudslides or downed trees, and plan viable alternative routes in case some roads get blocked. You don’t want to drive through a puddle that’s deeper than it looks. It may also prove worthwhile to keep some hard copies of maps in your car.

You’ll typically need a comprehensive car insurance policy to get covered for flood, storm or wildfire damage — basic collision and liability won’t cut it. 

Danielle Marchelle, a licensed insurance agent and spokeswoman for the insurance company The Zebra, pointed out the importance of timely preparation: “With both home and car insurance, be sure you’re covered well in advance of a storm. Disaster coverage typically doesn’t take effect for 30 days, and as inclement weather approaches, several insurance companies enact ‘binding restrictions’ making getting coverage impossible until after the storm.”

How to handle your job

Write down any phone numbers and email addresses for people you interact with on a regular basis in your job and keep it with your other important documents. If you use a work computer or have any other essential work item, take it with you when you evacuate, since you don’t know how long it could be until you return home.

If you evacuate, contact your boss and let them know what’s happening as soon as it’s safe to do so. Together you’ll figure out the best plan of action moving forward. Likewise, contact any clients or teammates who rely on you to maintain your business connections. 

Post-disaster scams and relief

Another harsh reality of climate disasters is that they come with their fair share of scammers. If you familiarize yourself with the traits of some common relief scams, you can better recognize nefarious activity post-evacuation when your focus is likely compromised.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau advises that disaster survivors watch out for certain suspect behaviors when accepting help after a severe weather event. One red flag includes organizations with names that are similar to official government entities. Also look out for anyone trying to sell an after-the-fact insurance policy or anyone charging upfront fees for disaster relief or loans. The bureau also recommends not accepting help from contractors offering services door to door, especially if they demand immediate payment or offer discounts.

After you’ve evacuated, contact your mortgage lender or landlord, utility providers and other service providers. Oftentimes they’ll be able to offer some sort of assistance in the wake of a disaster. Along with FEMA, charitable organizations will likely be available to offer help. Take advantage of the resources at your disposal.