The California wildfires have already destroyed homes and caused millions of dollars in damages. But they also highlight an important issue: as evacuees make their way to safe places, they decide what to take with them.
"Good Morning America" financial contributor Mellody Hobson says there are some important documents to grab before you head off. Find out what she suggests taking in the event of an emergency.
The mandatory evacuation in parts of Southern California is a stark reminder that all of us need to be prepared for an emergency. What documents should you absolutely take with you when you leave?
First, you must take your identity with you. Specifically, it is key you leave your home with valid photo identification — a passport or driver's license. Ideally, your identification should be up to date and list your current home address — this is essential to prove your identity.
Believe it or not, I recommend you take a copy of a recent utility bill with you. In most states, a copy of your utility bill is all you need to validate your home address — again, a critical component to getting the help you need in case of emergency.
Next, I recommend everyone take cash with them when they evacuate. To this end, it is critical you keep a small amount of cash in a "hidden" location where you have easy access to it, but will not be tempted to spend it for other items not related to the emergency. Remember, in many cases, ATM machines may not be accessible, and stores may not have power, so cash may be the only currency available for a transaction.
Finally, the American Express expression — "don't leave home without it" — actually is good advice for an emergency. I recommend you take one credit card with you in case you need to check into a hotel or make an emergency purchase.
You also suggest taking photos before you leave. Why?
This is really important. Obviously, depending on the gravity of the situation, you may or may not have time to do much besides evacuate with your family and pets, but in case you do have some time to prepare, I absolutely recommend you take pictures. Simply go through each room in your house, and your closets, and snap photos of all of your possessions. These photos will be extraordinarily helpful when it comes to making an inventory of your possessions for your insurance company.
This prompts another question: are there certain documents which should not be kept in your home in the first place?
Definitely. Anything which is a legal document, such as your birth certificate, wedding certificate, stock certificate or mortgage papers, should all be stored in a safety deposit box at a bank — not under your mattress or in a dresser drawer. Additionally, I recommend making a copy of all of your key financial documents, placing them in a sealed envelope, and giving them to a friend or family member to store at their own home for safekeeping.
After the damage is done, how much will my fire insurance policy cover?
The great thing about basic fire coverage is that it covers everything, including items like spare light bulbs. It's not like floods and earthquakes. And generally, as long as you have documented items, you should be covered.
How can I make sure to get the most out of my policy following an emergency?