Disaster Planning: What to Grab in an Emergency

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?

The only way to get what you are due is documentation. This is the most important thing, and the person responsible for making sure everything is on that insurance policy is you, not your insurance agent.

That's why I strongly recommend that once a year you walk through your house and note any changes. Have you done any home improvements? Did you happen to get engaged and now have a piece of expensive jewelry? Did you buy a new home sound system? Those things you want to make sure get on that policy.

It also doesn't hurt to take pictures of your home -- photos are great documentation of what was there.

For people who want to help those in Southern California impacted by the wildfires, what would you tell our viewers?

One of the most meaningful ways to help is to donate to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund. Your donation will go directly to providing people with necessary shelter, food and even grief counseling.

Outside of writing a check, are there other things you can do to help?

Absolutely. In a disaster such as the wildfires, there is a great need for volunteers — everything from giving up a spare bedroom in your home, to helping with the disaster recovery efforts. One great Web site to check out is www.volunteermatch.com.

You can simply type in your location and specify an area of volunteer interest, such as disaster recovery, to learn more about ways you can give back.

When a disaster strikes, we often see the best in people. But, unfortunately, there are others who may try to take advantage of people's desire to help. How can you avoid a scam when looking for ways to help?

I wish I could say otherwise, but you are right — scam artists recognize the altruism of others as an opportunity to make money by approaching unsuspecting people. As such, it is critically important to research the organization to which you are giving money, as well as be wary of some red flags.

First and foremost, be inquisitive when you are approached by an organization soliciting your donations. All organizations, even newer ones, should have basic information available on their programs, as well as their finances. If an organization or solicitor is unable to provide this information, or even answer simple questions about how aid will be used and distributed, you may want to give elsewhere. Also, if a solicitor pressures you to make a quick decision, your antennae should be up.

Next, if you want your contribution to be tax deductible, be sure to confirm the tax status of the aid organization, which is available on the Internal Revenue Service Web site, www.irs.gov. In order to claim the deduction, the organization must be classified as tax exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.

Finally, whatever organization you decide to give to, be sure to provide a secure donation. Generally, I would suggest you avoid making donations over the phone or e-mail via credit card. If you choose to use your credit card, be cautious, and if you are making your donation online, always make sure it is a secure site.

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