How to Plan for a Disaster and What to Do if You're a Disaster Victim

PHOTO: Brian Vitsmun sorts through debris at his home that was destroyed by a tornado on June 2, 2013 in Moore, Okla.

Disasters disrupt life in unimaginable ways, making those affected much more vulnerable to secondary disasters — the kind caused by criminals. I've been through a number of earthquakes and lost a home to Hurricane Sandy. I know how all-consuming the aftermath can be.

Wildfires, tornadoes and other natural disasters seem to be happening more and more these days. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warns that the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season will be "above normal and possibly extremely active."

The danger and chaos that inevitably follow a natural (or for that matter — man-made) disaster, create opportunities for predators, who seem to slither out from under the rocks to prey upon their victims: identity thieves, burglars, snake oil salesmen disguised as home improvement contractors and fraudsters claiming to be raising funds to help ease the pain.

Plan Ahead

We can and have learned from past disasters that meaningful preparation can pay big dividends in helping people deal with and recover from the unimaginable. Here are some suggestions that might help you weather the disaster.

Have a family emergency disaster plan. Disasters can strike with little or no warning at any moment of the day. It is quite likely that many families are not together. Parents can be either at work or at home. Kids can be at school. Family members can be running chores or away on business trips or vacations. Therefore, you should develop a communication plan that establishes who you contact and when you contact them in the event of an emergency. You should also agree upon primary and secondary meeting places.

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Keep emergency numbers handy for key support functions and home utilities. Create a list of all emergency service phone numbers, as well as those for your utility companies that provide electric power, natural gas, water and telephone services. Know where your shut-off switches and/or valves are for these services and how to shut them down. In event of a pending or significant disaster, turning off the electric, gas and water utilities -- if it can be safely done -- can help prevent secondary fires, explosions and internal flooding to your residence.

Make copies (front and back) of the documents that confirm your identity and allow you to buy what you need. Birth certificates, driver's licenses and passports; Social Security, voter's registration and medical insurance cards; credit and debit cards. Also, make sure you have the customer service information for financial institutions and credit card companies as well as your credit and debit card numbers so you can contact them immediately and arrange for credit and debit card replacement in the event they are lost. You may wish to store this information in an encrypted file so that you can access it online. In the physical world, you may want to store a copy of these documents either in a waterproof container that can be secured in a safe place or scan them onto a password protected, encrypted USB drive that you always carry with you.

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Consider remote electronic data storage for irreplaceable documents or photographs. If you have some irreplaceable or historical documents, trust and estate documents such as wills and Powers of Attorney or special family photographs, consider scanning them onto a disk and/or storing them in an accessible online electronic vault.

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