Monday, August 27, 2012

A FEMA Contractor's Hurricane & Disaster Evacuation Tips That Can Decrease Your Loss

Hello! For those who don't know me personally, I have been a disaster housing inspector, under contract to FEMA for the last 10+ years. I'm also a Licensed Practical Nurse. I've been in the homes of over 900 disaster victims and have observed first hand the devastating effects of hurricanes and tropical storms. I've also lived in Florida and experienced hurricanes from a resident's perspective as well.

As I write this I am on standby for deployment once Isaac makes landfall. It is from my past experiences that I have drawn some valuable information that I want to share. It is my hope that these tips will help decrease people's loss or assist in their recovery.

This post is intended for anyone in the path of a tropical storm, hurricane, forest fire, etc. If you are in an evacuation area, PLEASE consider taking with you any applicable items from the following list. A few are necessary if you must file an Insurance or FEMA claim. They are marked with an ***. The rest you will not want to lose if your home is heavily damaged or destroyed. Some will say that my list is over-kill. I disagree. I've based it on what I've observed from hundreds of people suffering loss.

The easiest thing to do is to keep a list taped inside the cupboard or closet door. Have a suitable tote designated as the evacuation tote and know where everything is. If you do have to evacuate, just go down the list, pack it into the tote and you're done. Planning  ahead alleviates a lot of last minute anxiety and decreases your chance of forgetting important items.

I have seen the unfortunate results of people who did not take these items with them. Obviously what you take depends on your method of evacuation and the amount of room you have when you're leaving. Remember though, a little discomfort from being cramped in the car is worth it compared to the pain of the loss of many of these items and the ability to recover more quickly because you have the documents required to apply for assistance. Please read down to the bottom for a few additional tips.

Important documents: 

  1. Birth certificates
  2. Marriage license
  3. Divorce decree
  4. Child custody/Child support papers
  5. Social Security cards
  6. Immunization records
  7. Passports (include your Yellow Fever Immunization document if applicable)
  8. Mortgage payment book***
  9. Copy of rental lease***
  10. Current Utility Bills***
  11. Homeowner's Insurance - full policy papers, not just your agent's card***
  12. Auto Insurance - full policy, not just your agent's card***
  13. Auto Registration documents***
  14. Health Insurance cards***
  15. Banking documents: checkbooks, Debit or Credit cards
  16. Tax Records, Payroll stubs, W-2 forms***
  17. Food Stamp or public assistance records
  18. Bankruptcy papers
  19. List of all creditors
  20. Student Loan paperwork
  21. Specialty License or Certification records (nursing license, real estate license, etc.)
  22. Safe Deposit Box key and info (Banks don't keep a spare copy of the depositor's key from what I have been told by my bank. If your key is destroyed you will have a very difficult time getting your items)
  23. Contact info for important people (family and friends)
  24. Your Journal
  25. List of family physicians & contact info
  26. List of prescription meds (If you can get a printout of your meds from your pharmacy or doctor to keep on hand it is even better. If your pharmacy and/or doctor's office is closed or destroyed you may need these to get refills. Not all pharmacy computers are linked, and a new pharmacist won't know which "little white pill for my pressure" you are supposed to be on.)
  27. Important school records (HS or college diploma, transcripts, acceptance letter, Homeschooling records, etc.)
  28. Tickets for upcoming events/travel that you would have a hard time replacing if they were destroyed (Season tickets, next spring's cruise, etc.)
  29. Pilot's flight hours log - Any pilot knows the importance of this logbook
  30. Aircraft maintenance log
  31. Other legal documents
  32. Copyright paperwork
  33. "Only Copies" of manuscripts, poetry, lyrics, artwork, original recorded music. It is heartbreaking when you have taken the time to create something and the only copy in existence is destroyed. 

Medical Items:

  1. All of your prescription meds currently in hand
  2. Extra prescription glasses & the written eyeglass prescription
  3. Medical equipment that you use regularly (glucometer, BP cuff, CPAP, etc)
  4. Feminine hygiene items
  5. Over-the-counter meds likely to be needed


  1. Cellphone and charger
  2. Laptops with powercord
  3. External drives
  4. eBook readers
  5. Tablets
  6. The CPU from your desktop if you can't afford to replace it and your data is not backed up in a remote location.
  7. Expensive software (Don't forget the Key Code)
  8. Digital Camera with SD cards
  9. Video camera
  10. The kids' Wii, Gameboy, Nintendo, etc
  11. GPS unit

Pet Items:

  1. Pet food
  2. Litter
  3. Water bowl
  4. Pet meds (heart worm meds, flea & tick stuff, etc)
  5. Veterinarian records - including vaccine records, contact info, etc

Miscellaneous Items:

  1. Family photos (at least digital copies) - When I serviced applicants in New Orleans after Katrina that was one of their big heartaches. Walking through their mold covered homes and seeing all of their family photos destroyed.
  2. Expensive jewelry - leave the costume stuff at home, but grab great-grandma's 1-carat engagement ring or your $10k necklace.
  3. A good flashlight and fresh batteries. Power may be off when you return to your home. Having a good flashlight will allow you to enter and assess for any damages.
  4. Toilet paper. Laugh if you want, but remember past news footage of traffic backups that lasted for hours? It's bad enough having to relieve yourself along I-10, but think of not having your Charmin there to ease the pain? :-)
  5. 3 days worth of clothing for each family member. Yes, you might be able to return the next day...but that's what some of the Katrina victims thought too. 
  6. You may leave in flip-flops, but pack comfortable closed-toe walking shoes. When you return you may have to walk through debris to get to your house. I have heard that many minor after-hurricane-related injuries are due to people wearing improper footwear when walking through storm debris.
  7. Your child's favorite toys or stuffed animals. If your house suffers heavy damage, "Fluffy" the rabbit, that scrungy security blanket or a Gameboy might bring extra comfort to your child.
  8. Extra batteries for any battery operated items.
  9. Your Bible, Torah, Quran, Book of Mormon or whatever other religious writing you hold sacred. 
  10. A good book to read
  11. Firearms (to prevent damage to them) - know your state laws about transporting firearms. Keep gun locks handy for transport. Keep them unloaded and ammo separate from the guns.
  12. Water (and water purification method like AquaMira, iodine tabs, filter, etc. if available)
  13. Cooler with food that may spoil in the fridge
  14. Snacks/food for the evacuation trip
  15. Sleeping bags/blankets & pillows
  16. Towel & washcloth
  17. Toiletries

Before Evacuation:

  • TAKE PICTURES of your home inside and out. Make sure the date and time are set correctly on your camera and turn the times stamp ON. Photograph any important or valuable items that you may need to file a claim on. Include serial numbers in the photo if possible.
  • Record Make, Model and Serial Number on any electronics, firearms, etc. 
  • ATMs and banking may very well be disabled. Have cash on hand for gasoline, etc.
  • Fill your gas tank IN ADVANCE of an evacuation call or landfall (even if you aren't evacuating). Stations may be closed due to power outages after the storm. 
  • Remember, dressers and tables will float and tip over in flooding, so if you are in a flood area, placing valuables on counter tops or on upper shelves will better protect from flood waters.
  • If there are things you can't take that could be damaged by water, try to waterproof them by sealing them in large Ziploc bags or garbage bags if possible.
  • In flooding areas, elevating items at least 12" off the floor can be the difference between losing all of your first floor furnishing and saving some of them. 
  • Move items like TVs, etc. away from windows that might be broken from blowing debris.

Upon Return:

  • TAKE PICTURES of an damage IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING the disaster. Make sure the date and time are set correctly on your camera and turn the times stamp ON. This will aid in filing insurance claims, etc. In a large-scale disaster, an adjuster may not be able to get to your home before clean-up is started or completed. 
  • Mold sets in quickly, don't wait to start cleanup. That's why pictures are so important.
  • Save receipts from items you purchase for cleanup, etc. There is no guarantee that you will be reimbursed for them, but No Receipt = No Reimbursement for sure in most cases.
  • If you have had FLOODING, when you clean up or tear out sheetrock, LEAVE A SPOT showing the HIGH WATER MARK. It can be in the closet, behind the bathroom door, or where ever, but it helps us tremendously when cleanup has already been started. As an inspector I have to measure the water line and record the height in order to spec out damage. 

Evacuation is costly. Officials have a tough call to make when they order an evacuation, and they are usually criticized no matter what the outcome is. If an area doesn't get hit hard people are upset and feel they wasted their time and money for nothing. There aren't any easy answers, but preparation will ease the frustration no matter what the storm (or other disaster) does.