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Protect Critical Documents From Disaster With a ‘Bug-Out Bag’

Sept. 8, 2017
Homeownership, Mortgages
protect documents from disaster hurricane
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Live in a disaster-prone area? Gather important papers in advance in a waterproof container that you can grab at a moment’s notice if you have to flee.

As a South Florida resident, here’s what I do whenever a hurricane approaches.

I haven’t had to leave my house with what I call a “bug-out bag” — yet. Still, watching videos of Hurricane Harvey survivors wading through waist-high water reminded me how useful it is to have your most important papers if you are forced to evacuate your home in a disaster. That way, you can put your financial life back together more easily later.

Hurricane Irma is bearing down on my house as I write this. I’m staying home during the storm. But in case I need to skedaddle, here’s what I do.

I gather these papers

• Copy or original of homeowner’s insurance policy
• Flood insurance policy number, proof of payment and a FEMA booklet that explains how to make a flood insurance claim
• Copy or original of the deed to the house
• Copy or original of the mortgage paperwork
• Auto and motorcycle titles
• Auto insurance cards (but if you’d rather take a copy of the policy, I won’t argue with you)
• Passports

I typically take only copies of most of these documents, and leave the originals in a safe deposit box, because of the chance the bag gets lost or stolen. If you don’t have a safe deposit box or would feel more at ease keeping the originals with you, you can certainly go that route.

Papers that I don’t take, but you might want to

• Social Security cards
• Birth certificates
• Bank and retirement account statements
• Tax returns and W-2s
• Medical records
• Precious photos

I may have to retrieve these documents in the medium to long term if I have to reconstruct parts of my financial life, but they’re less critical to my immediate needs after a storm. Plus, I like to travel light.

For more ideas about documents to take in a disaster, check out this list from FEMA.

» MORE: NerdWallet’s guide to coping with finances after a disaster

Choosing a bag

I pack my papers into a dry bag — the kind you’d stuff clothing into when going camping. Rolling down the bag’s top to seal it creates a carrying handle. I can trap air inside the bag so it won’t sink in murky floodwaters.

In the past, my wife and I have packed documents into a Tupperware container. But I wanted to carry something with a handle, so we switched to the dry bag. Whatever you use, you’ll want to put your papers in a waterproof container that can float.

You can find dry bags at stores that sell camping supplies. Mine is still in good shape after several years.

Why packing a bug-out bag is a good idea

Carrying important papers in a waterproof container will make it easier to put my life back together after I flee through a downpour or flood.

Here’s how it will help:

• I will be able to look up insurance policy numbers and phone numbers, even if my cell phone is lost or submerged or the battery is dead
• If an insurance adjuster or the Federal Emergency Management Agency needs paper copies of my documents, I’ll have them handy
• Some original documents (car titles, passports, house deeds) are a hassle to replace, so it’s best to have them on hand

Read more about handling finances in a disaster

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