How to protect your financial life amid extreme weather chaos

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Watching the horrific wildfires in Maui and the people running for their lives might have you wondering what you would do if your home were in imminent danger.

Could you quickly put your hands on important financial documents while fleeing to safety?

“When we were evacuating, it felt almost like a video game,” said a 15-year-old Maui resident who, along with family, had to elude a wildfire. “We were like: ‘Pack your bags. … Take your valuables. You might lose your home.’”

Climate change has put many people in the path of major natural disasters. Fires, floods, hurricanes and wind storms are devastating communities.

As of Tuesday, there had been 15 confirmed weather/climate disaster events in the United States this year with losses exceeding $1 billion each, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information. Damage from 2022 disasters totaled $165.1 billion.

Hawaii wildfire death toll rises

Swift-moving wildfires, fanned by winds from Hurricane Dora, have killed dozens in Maui. Video and photos show burned homes and businesses. Lahaina, a popular tourist destination in western Maui, was hard hit.

Right now, displaced residents are focusing on their basic needs — shelter and food.

However, many may soon face a new challenge — recovering pay stubs, insurance papers, bank statements and any of the other financial records that are the bane of our modern-day existence. Many businesses have been destroyed, raising the possibility of lost work records, too.

The disaster in Hawaii is just the latest reminder to get our financial houses in order. Here’s what you should do.

How to help Hawaii residents displaced by Maui wildfires

Prepare for a quick evacuation

Get a safe that’s waterproof, fire-resistant and light enough to carry. Keep all your household’s important financial documents in this box, including your passport; insurance policies; extra checks; a copy of your driver’s license; your Social Security card (or at least write down the number); bank, investment and credit card account numbers; and key legal documents such as wills, marriage and birth certificates, and the titles to your home and vehicles.

You should include some cash or traveler’s checks. If the electricity goes out, as it has in many areas in Maui, ATMs may not work and you might not be able to use a credit or debit card to make purchases.

The best tech to have in a natural disaster

Keep the original receipts of major purchases in the safe, as proof of what you spent.

Back up important financial documents

In addition to keeping your paperwork in a safe, make photocopies of your documents and place them in a safe-deposit box or give them to a trusted relative or friend who does not live in the same area you do.

You can also back up your data to cloud-based services such as Google Drive or Apple’s iCloud. Be sure to consistently back up your data to the cloud.

Make a list of major household items

With your smartphone, take pictures of your big-screen televisions, computers, furniture, heirlooms, etc. You want proof of the expensive stuff you own.

You might also want to record a video of the items in your home. Record model and serial numbers. Then, of course, download it for safekeeping in the event you have to prove to an insurance company what items you lost in a disaster.

‘They are not slowing down’: The rise of billion-dollar disasters

Assess your insurance needs

Part of your disaster plan should be determining whether you’re carrying the right amount of insurance.

Now is the time to evaluate whether you have enough coverage. Call your insurance agent. Will your policy replace the full value of your possessions?

Do you have life insurance?

Many people neglect to get disability insurance. If you were injured in a natural disaster, would you be able to live off your savings? Buy enough disability insurance to replace 60 to 70 percent of your income.

What if your home is flooded?

Homeowners and renters insurance do not typically cover flood damage; coverage must be purchased separately. Even if you’re not in a high-flood-risk area, you may still need supplemental coverage.

Climate disasters make it harder to insure your home. Here’s what to know.

The National Flood Insurance Program, managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, helps you purchase flood insurance from an insurance company or agent. If you need help finding a provider, go to floodsmart.gov/find or call 877-336-2627.

Just one inch of floodwater can cause up to $25,000 in damage, according to the NFIP.

On average, flooding causes more than $5 billion in damage nationwide each year, according to NFIP. Hurricane Ian alone resulted in more than 46,000 claims and $1.5 billion in policy coverage.

You have to plan ahead, because typically there is a 30-day waiting period for an NFIP policy to go into effect, unless the coverage is mandated.

For information on flood insurance, go to floodsmart.gov.

If you want more personal finance advice that’s timeless, order your copy of Michelle Singletary’s Money Milestones.

Homeowners with mortgages have to carry homeowners insurance, but renters often neglect to protect themselves.

If you are renting, get renter’s insurance — the insurance your landlord carries does not cover damage to your personal possessions.

Natural disasters are only getting worse with climate change. It’s wise to be prepared in case your home or community is hit.

B.O.M. — The best of Michelle Singletary on personal finance

If you have a personal finance question for Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary, please call 1-855-ASK-POST (1-855-275-7678).

Recession-proof your life: The tsunami of economic news is leading consumers, investors and would-be homeowners alike to ask whether a recession is inevitable. Regardless of the answer, there are practical steps you can take to help shield yourself from a worst-case scenario.

Credit card debt: Carrying credit card debt is never good and you should ditch the habit. Here are seven ways to lower your credit card debt in light of the Fed continuing to raise interest rates.

Money moves for life: For a more sweeping overview of Michelle’s timeless money advice, see Michelle Singletary’s Money Milestones. The interactive package offers guidance for every life stage, whether you’re just starting out in your career to living an abundant life in retirement.

Test Yourself: Do you know where you stand financially? Take our quiz and read advice from Michelle.

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