Natural disasters can leave finances and lives upended by the mental, physical and economic impacts. Nearly every area of the country has something to contend with: hurricanes or tornadoes, earthquakes or devastating wildfires.
Take time to prepare your financial records and learn where to turn for help when a natural disaster strikes.
Prepare for the worst
By preparing your important documents during a period of calm, you can get a jump-start on your recovery if a disaster hits.
“The sooner you start taking action, the better your outcome will be,” says Kate Bulger, director of business development at Money Management International, a nonprofit credit counseling agency. “There is no benefit to waiting — ever.”
You can prepare thoroughly by using the Emergency Financial First Aid Kit as a guide. The kit was created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and nonprofit Operation HOPE. It provides checklists and forms you’ll use to gather important materials, such as:
Household information: These details will help you prove identity and apply for FEMA disaster assistance.
Financial and legal documents: These also can help with applying for assistance and reestablishing financial accounts.
Medical information: Having these details will help your family get proper medical care.
Contacts: This ensures you have a way to reach important personal, financial and service provider contacts, such as insurance agents and benefits providers.
The information to gather is extensive, but you’ll be glad you did so if an emergency hits. And if you get tripped up along the way, Operation HOPE provides help at 888-388-4673.
Once you’ve pulled information together, make digital and physical copies to keep in secure locations. Store physical documents securely, such as in a fireproof and waterproof safe or safe deposit box; upload digital copies to secure cloud storage for remote access. Consider putting copies in a “bug-out bag” to take with you if you have to leave your home.
When disaster hits, know where to turn for help
No single governmental or nonprofit organization will be the key to your recovery; instead, you’ll likely have to tap several different sources.
“When you’re talking about trying to come back whole from losing your home, job or any kind of natural disaster, it’s really going to take a variety of sources to get you whole,” says Regine Webster, vice president at the nonprofit Center for Disaster Philanthropy. She recommends making use of aid from federal agencies, but notes that you’ll need assistance from other sources, too: “It's going to be a quilt that comes together to help make you whole.”
Here are a few sources of aid in a disaster:
Government: FEMA and the Small Business Administration are two go-to government resources that offer aid and often work in conjunction with each other. Those who apply for FEMA assistance are often required to also apply for an SBA loan. That’s right — even if you’re not a small-business owner, SBA loans are available to you, since this agency is the federal government’s primary source of funds for long-term rebuilding of private property damaged by disaster. You’re not obligated to accept the loan if you qualify, but you need to be mindful of these technicalities.
Direct assistance: This is the assistance typically provided by nonprofits, including the Red Cross. A free program called Project Porchlight, from Money Management International, can provide custom recovery plans and can help you maintain good standing with your creditors.
Community groups: Social media, such as Facebook and Nextdoor, can provide up-to-date information about local aid.
Be mindful of deadlines — and take the long view
Disasters can unfold in an instant; recovery can take months or years. To get through the hard moments, focus on long-term recovery goals. Develop a system to stay on top of deadlines for aid applications and pursue ways to rebound from any disaster-related debt you may accumulate.
“You're going to have setbacks, and it can be hard,” says Bulger. “Just try to keep that momentum up. Continue to apply for help and work on your recovery. That momentum makes the difference between getting through recovery in a reasonable time frame and having the hardship linger.”