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Protecting and Preserving Important Documents

documentsRecord keeping is something many people prefer not to worry about. Unfortunately, life these days requires a lot of paperwork and information. Fortunately for us in the United States, we have not yet reached the point of a mandatory national ID, but in case of a major disaster, the authorities will be much more demanding than under normal circumstance and proper documents will make your family’s life easier.

Some common documents that should be safeguarded include driver’s licenses, passports, birth and marriage certificates, important financial documents, proof of property ownership and vital medical records. In other words, any document that’s important enough to have on hand during the best of times will likely become even more important during the worst of times and should be safeguarded.

There are a few important factors that you should consider when planning how you will safeguard your papers. Some papers require official seals or a notary’s stamp to be valid for official use. Ask the issuing agency for each document to determine what their own rule is, and make sure your copies have the required validation markings. Papers should be kept together so they can be easily grabbed if the family needs to bug out fast. A good container, such as a small fire-proof lock box, is perfect for this and can be used to contain other important family heirlooms. I also recommend that you place them in waterproof (or at least water- resistant) bags or document sleeves to protect them from moisture.

The attack on the World Trade center prompted many companies to start thinking about redundancy and continuity of operations. Though 9/11 was a serious attack, its scope was somewhat limited to a few blocks in downtown Manhattan. However, the entire city was shut down for a few days.

We need to learn from these events and plan for redundancy and continuity of operations when deciding where to store important documents. Bank safe deposit boxes are secure locations to store documents, but if that bank is within the area of the disaster, it will likely be closed and the documents unavailable. A good alternative is to place the documents in a safe deposit box located in another nearby city or town. A bank in your ‘retreat’ area is an excellent choice, perhaps in a place where one also has relatives with whom the family can stay.

thumb driveDigital documents are easily carried and can be printed at many locations. Though digital might not work for official documents such as certified birth certificates or property deeds, they are a great backup plan and might be accepted in an emergency. Thousands of photos and documents can fit on one USB thumb drive and be retrieved using any computer. Documents containing serial numbers, account numbers and other important information should also be stored on the drive. Keep in mind you should use widely available document formats, such as PDF, to increase the chances that they can be read by a random computer. Just because you have the latest version of Windows and MS Office doesn’t mean an internet cafe in the middle of nowhere will.

Most of these portable USB drives (also known as flash drives, thumb drives, or memory sticks) can be easily encrypted to secure important proprietary data. The drives are relatively cheap so you can make a few copies and safeguard them with family, friends or in a safe deposit box. Online document storage is also a viable option but I recommend that all documents stored this way be well encrypted.

The bottom line is that much of our lives and who we are perceived to be is stored on the pages of a few important documents. No one wants their life reduced to words on paper, but unfortunately that’s what our “identities” can be reduced to. In the event of a disaster, you’ll have many important things to worry about and wasting time proving you are who you say you are can be avoided by ensuring you have access to all your essential documents.

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