disasters can destroy your important documentsBetween natural disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes and man-made tragedies like house fires and gas line explosions, there are plenty of ways you might end up losing a majority of your personal belongings. Sometimes, these losses can include sensitive personal documents, such as your birth certificate, social security card, vehicle title and registration and more. While the biggest concern during the course of an event such as a flood should be to get yourself and your family members to safety, inevitably at some point you will need to assess the loss or damage of your property. What kind of documents can be lost in a catastrophic event, what steps can you take to recover and replace them and what should you do to protect yourself from other dangers — like fraud — if the worst happens?

What kinds of important documents are at risk?

Though there are a myriad of different documents that a person could reasonably consider important enough to cause concern if they are lost or damaged in a disaster, there are some key documents which a large majority of people are likely to have in their possession. These can be grouped into three categories: federal, state and personal, which will aid in determining who you’ll need to contact in order to get them replaced. The most common ones to take note of in each category include:

Federal documents

  • Social security cards
  • Passports
  • Green cards
  • Military records
  • Medicare cards
  • U.S. Savings Bonds
  • Federal tax returns

State documents

  • Marriage and divorce certificates
  • Birth and death certificates
  • Driver’s licenses or state ID cards
  • Property records and other real estate documents
  • Vehicle titles and registration
  • State tax returns

Personal documents

  • ATM/debit cards or credit cards
  • Checkbooks and other similar banking documents
  • Insurance cards and documents
  • Medical records

Again, this is not an exhaustive list, as there are plenty of other documents that you might consider important and have difficulty replacing. However, this is a good list to get you started thinking about what kinds of information you could potentially lose if disaster hits. If you are lucky enough to be reading this and you haven’t experienced any kind of catastrophe, now is the time to work on preparing yourself for the worst. You can begin by using the list above to make copies of all the pertinent documents and storing them somewhere unlikely to be completely destroyed, such as a safety deposit box at your bank or (better yet) uploading them onto a cloud storage account. Storing items in a sturdy lock box or safe in your home is also a good idea, though there’s still potential for that to be lost or destroyed, depending on the event.

What can you do if your documents are lost or destroyed?

In the event that one or a number of your important documents disappear as the result of some sort of disaster or accident, your first step should be to make a list of everything missing. This includes documents for any minors or other dependents living in your household. Your next step will be contacting the agencies or services which provided these documents in the first place. Although doing so might seem overwhelming, especially if you’re facing a total loss such as your home burning down, most federal, state and private entities are prepared to offer assistance to people in your situation. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides tons of information and resources on its website to victims of disasters all across the country, and most states have their own resources. In many instances, you might be able to find a list on the FEMA website with links and contact information for each agency or service you need replacement documents from — such as this example set up for victims of flooding in Louisiana. In a more broad sense, USA.gov has some information on replacing vital records, and this page from the CDC lists the cost and exact information necessary to replace certain vital records in each U.S. state. When it comes to personal documents, you’ll need to do the legwork to contact each institution or company individually.

Remember to take identity theft into consideration

If you are displaced from your home as a result of a disaster or other incident, it’s important to remember that you’ll need a secure location where new documents can be mailed to you so they don’t fall into someone else’s hands. We outline this and some other precautions to take in our post on preparing financially for disasters. Furthermore, natural disasters which displace people from their homes can result in sensitive information getting stolen by looters or people who happen to be in the right place at the right time. Some types of disasters, like floods and tornadoes, can lead to people’s belongings — including those containing personal documents — winding up in different places. As such, anyone who has experienced a loss of their personal documents or any kind of catastrophe which could lead to others getting hold of their information should be mindful of identity theft and fraud. This extends to your children, too, as identity theft is sadly common for those under 18. Utilizing an identity theft protection service can help by monitoring your credit reports and personal information for potential issues, as well as offering assistance in the event that you do become a victim of fraud as a result of identity theft down the road.

We can’t always be prepared for every potential disaster, but there is hope for recovering if the worst should happen to your personal information and sensitive documents. To learn more about protecting yourself and your data, you can follow our identity theft protection blog.