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Disaster Preparedness: Five Simple Steps to Protect Your Assets

I knew something was wrong when my husband walked in the door.

The strong winds that started that morning were wreaking utter havoc. At 75+ mph winds with 100+ mph gusts, our 11-foot trailer was lifted off its chocks and sent smashing into our neighbor’s car. It whizzed branches past our heads, impaling them into the side of the house. The tornado blew our entire front yard down to bare soil and blew down trees that had been standing for over 60 years.

In all my years in Colorado, I had never seen anything like it.

But despite all of that happening, what I saw in my husband’s eyes was fear.

“Whitney, I don’t think Superior and Louisville will survive the day,” he said, “And quite frankly, I’m worried about us too.” (Superior and Louisville are local towns.)

That’s when the smell of smoke from the open door hit me.

My daughter and I ran to the back window and saw the towering cloud of smoke, not one mile from us, turn from gray to dark black, meaning only one thing… man-made structures were burning.

The towns were burning.

With a long career in fighting forest fires and forest fire mitigation, my husband knew how quickly a fire fanned by strong winds could move.

Then he said it…

“Pack it up.” My heart sank.

In less than 15 minutes, we had fully executed our disaster preparedness plan, the car fully packed, not knowing if we would ever see our beloved home again.

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On Thursday, December 30, 2021, in less than 18 hours, the Marshall Fire in my hometown of Boulder County, Colorado, burned over 6,200 acres, destroyed over 1080+ urban homes, and claimed two lives. No one fathomed that this type of disaster could happen in an urban setting and most in our community were woefully under-prepared.

We were very, very, very blessed that our home and possessions were mostly fine. However, others suffered stunning losses.

Being Prepared = Being Smart

Having lost everything in a 1999 hurricane in New Orleans (a minor storm that most have never heard of), I’ve since erred on being “slightly” more prepared than most people.

According to Wikipedia, disaster preparedness is “a research-based set of actions that are taken as precautionary measures in the face of potential disasters. These actions can include both physical preparations and training for emergency action. Preparedness is an important quality in achieving goals and in avoiding and mitigating negative outcomes.”

Being prepared not only makes me feel more at ease should disaster strike, but it also allows me to navigate situations more nimbly and mitigate negative outcomes. And if the goal of preparedness is to mitigate negative outcomes, and we investors love mitigating the downside of any investment, my question to you is… how prepared are you?

Five Steps to Creating Your Preparedness Plan

There are five general preparedness steps to follow. And while the lists below may seem very long and detailed, they really are not. Let me explain why. Disasters rarely happen in isolation.

In the case of the devastating Marshall Fires, even if people were prepared for the initial wildfire disaster, many weren’t prepared for secondary disasters, like utilities being cut off for days, freezing temperatures, bursting pipes, and no clean water.

This is just one of many examples… others include the recent failure of the Texas power grid in 2021, Hurricane Katrina in 2003, Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and the 1000-year Boulder flood in 2013. 

The steps below will help you prepare your family, secure your assets, and brace for impact in these types of situations. Once you are in the middle of a disaster, chaos takes over, supplies dwindle, and it’s too late to prepare.

Step 1: Sign up for community alerts with your office of emergency management, reputable local news source as well as the schools your kids attend. In most cases, these entities will also have an app you can download so notices can be pushed directly to you. You want the news from these sources finding you. Also, download the Red Cross Emergency App and FEMA App. Another way to get reliable outside news is through a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) radio.

Step 2: Make a plan for the situations you are most likely to encounter in your community. Answer the questions below to help guide you.

What event(s) are most likely to be impact by in your community? Blizzards, avalanche, drought, dust storm, earthquake, flood, hurricane, ice storm, mudslide, sinkhole, pandemic, power/water/gas outage, tornado, wildfire, windstorm, civil/political unrest.

Many think that disasters only apply to extreme events. However, we’ve activated our preparedness plans four times in the past ten years for job layoffs, government furloughs, and supply disruptions.

What are the likely secondary impacts of the first event(s)?  Power outage, no running water/contaminated water supply, looting/civil unrest, cascading disasters, disruption of services/transportation, impassable roads.

How long do you need to prepare for (three days, 14 days, 30 days)?

Where will you wait out the disaster (shelter in place, shelter across town, shelter hours away)? Designate a spot for each situation.

How much notice will you get about the impending disaster (minutes, hours, days)?

If the event happened, who needs to know what and when? Think through your immediate family, neighbors, friends, and extended family? Part of the reason I lost everything in 1999 was that I called to check on my parents in Houston rather than making sure I had my own personal situation secured in New Orleans.

Step 3: Build a kit for the event (and duration you are planning for) that can be easily moved (this is not the time to store 100-pound boxes). Keep in mind who in your group might have special needs like kids, pets, and the elderly. Also, remember the rule “three is two, two is one, one is none” meaning have multiples of critical supplies and devices in case one is lost, broken, or malfunctions. Store your kit in one location that is known to all family members. Here are some essentials to consider:

Communication devices + chargers (i.e., cell phones, crank radio, mirrors, HAM radios, etc.).

Water – one gallon per person/pet per day for drinking water. This does not include cooking, cleaning, and sanitation. Pack Sawyer water filters or iodine drops if you need to get clean water on the go.

Food – Plan for 1500-1800 calories per day per person (be certain to consider if you can cook or not, food preferences, allergies, etc.).

Power – What kind of power/fuel will you need to run to store food, keep lights going, keep warm/cool, store medications, run a medical device, etc. Think in terms of battery packs, solar generators, gas generators, propane, and so on.

Heat – Clothes, jackets, hats, gloves, blankets, sleeping bags, fireplaces, stoves, and heaters.

Cool – Water, cooling towels, wet clothes, fans, kiddie pools, and the bathtub.

Lights – No one likes the dark in a scary situation. Think in terms of candles, flashlights, lanterns, headlamps, solar lights, toys that light up, etc.

Gasoline – This one is tricky as you need to keep it stored in approved containers. Keep enough on hand to get you to your two-hour destination.

Other things to include:

Money (consider carrying an extra credit card and/or cash to pay for things quickly), first aid kit, prescription medications and contacts/glasses,   fire extinguisher, clothes, comforts and distractions for you, kids, and pets (books, puzzles, games, etc.)

Step 4: Safeguard Your Important Documents – Keep hard and/or electronic files in a locking fire/waterproof safe that is easily transportable. My files are on an external hard drive that can be used with any device. I keep this stored in an RFID-proof pouch, in a safe for added security. Here are a few things to prepare for all family members (pets too!):

A copy of your preparedness plan, preparedness kit list, and other items you would like to take if you had time/room.

Identification – driver’s licenses, passports, SSN cards, birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates.

Insurance – all insurance cards, insurance policies (personal and rental), anything that shows coverage.

Legal records – wills, trusts, deeds (personal and rental property), entity documents, pet ownership docs, anything needed to show ownership.

Medical records  – copies of prescriptions that need refilling, vaccination records.

Current pictures of all family members and pets – These come in handy should you become separated and need to hand them over to authorities.

Video of property – shoot videos of each room of your home documenting the condition and contents (be sure to open drawers and cabinets to capture what is inside them). Don’t forget sheds, attics, crawlspaces, and vehicles. These come in handy to replace damaged items through insurance. Other items to stash in your mobile safe: credit cards, cash, electronic backup of computer files, receipts, and family photos (even ones in the cloud).

Wrapping It Up

Once you have your disaster plan and kit prepared, you need to do a couple more steps. First, be sure to review the contents annually to update files and replace expired items.

Second, and most importantly, train your family on the disaster preparedness plan, where the plan is located (including how to access it), and how to pack it up.

It was clear we hadn’t reviewed our disaster preparedness plan in quite a while when my husband was asking me where the radios and charging cables were and our daughter packed up her entire snow globe collection instead of the family heirlooms (we gently let her know that we had to take the dog over the snow globes… she was okay with that). We have since resolved that by buying doubles of all cables and storing them in our “GO bins” in the garage and creating a list of heirlooms to grab if we have room. Disaster preparedness may not be the fun weekend activity you were planning on. However, the goal of disaster preparedness is to mitigate negative outcomes, and we investors love mitigating the downside of any investment. My question to you is…

Are you prepared?