What should you take with you in an emergency?

by Brian K. Schiess, CFP®, EA®, Modera Wealth Management, LLC

“There’s no harm in hoping for the best as long as you’re prepared for the worst.”

― Stephen King, Different Seasons

The war in Ukraine and natural disasters in our own country are stark reminders of how quickly unexpected and uncontrollable events around us can change the lives of many.

We are lucky enough not to deal with war on our own soil today. But hurricanes, tornados, and wildfires are increasingly common and can be both personally and financially devastating. In fact, the U.S. has sustained 310 weather and climate disasters since 1980 where overall damages/costs reached or exceeded $1 billion. The total cost of these 310 events exceeds $2.155 trillion. In 2020, California’s wildfires alone destroyed over 10,000 structures and resulted in over $12 billion in damage.

Safety is the ultimate priority in these situations. But even with technology at our disposal to help warn and prepare us, sometimes there is only a matter of days or even hours to react, take cover, or evacuate.

Luckily, there are some relatively easy steps you can take today to prepare if you need to seek safety in the future.

The Evacuation Checklist

Below is a checklist of to-dos for both yourself and anyone else who lives in your household (this should include spouses, partners, children, elderly, and pets in your care):

Establish a “Grab-and-Go” Bag: First, set aside an emergency bag or backpack that contains bottled water, non-perishable food, important medications, and a first aid kit. You may also want to add in an emergency tool kit. This will be your bag to pack further with additional items below, as time allows.

Protect Important Paper Documents: Second, keep the following original documents in a plastic, waterproof case or sleeve that you can easily slide into your grab-and-go bag. Until an emergency arises, it is advisable to keep these documents stored and periodically updated in a fireproof and waterproof safe in your house to protect them on a day-to-day basis:

  • Birth certificates
  • Social security cards
  • Driver’s licenses (make a copy for your file since you will probably keep your driver’s license with you in your wallet or purse under normal circumstances)
  • Passports
  • Death certificates
  • Marriage certificates
  • Estate planning documents (including wills, trust agreements, financial and health care powers of attorney, and any living wills/advance medical directives.
  • Deeds/titles for your property
  • Tax returns and records from at least the last three years
  • Stock certificates (if kept at home and not held at your brokerage)
  • Insurance policies, especially for home and auto
  • Recent statements from your credit card companies, banks, brokerage firm, retirement accounts, car loan, student loans, mortgage company and utilities
  • A list of important passwords and phone numbers to access account information online and to reach contacts
  • Important medical records and prescriptions
  • Car titles and copies of registrations
  • Pet papers (including proof of ownership and vaccinations, licenses, rabies certificates, and photos for identification)

Securely Digitize and Backup: Third, keep digital copies of important documentation elsewhere in case they are needed in an emergency or if the originals above are lost or damaged during the emergency:

  • Duplicate whatever paper you have on hand by either making scanned or PDF copies, or by taking photos of the documents above on your mobile phone.
  • Take pictures of the outside and inside of your home and the important items inside of it so you have a record of your valuable possessions. These will be useful for filing a claim with your insurance company.
  • Store all these digital files on a password-protected external hard drive or save them in a secured cloud account (such as Microsoft OneDrive, Google Drive, or Apple iCloud) so they are 100% protected from physical damage.
  • Backup other important files, applications, and internal hard drives from your home desktop computers to an external hard drive.
  • Pack any external hard drives with backup files on them along with their power plug in your grab-and-go bag or in a safe deposit box or other offsite location away from your home.
  • Set your mobile phone to back up its content and photos to the cloud, if you have that option, in the event your phone is lost during an emergency.

Gather Other Non-Paper Items (if you have time): Finally, if you have additional time to prepare for an evacuation, these are other items you should bring with you or pack in your grab-and-go bag or secondary luggage:

  • Cash
  • Credit cards
  • Health insurance cards
  • Your Car (if it is safe to drive in your local area during an emergency situation)
  • Fuel for your car
  • Additional medications
  • Mobile phones with spare phone chargers
  • Laptops with chargers
  • Jewelry
  • Family photos
  • Keepsakes
  • Keys (for cars, properties, external storage facilities, or other assets you may possess)
  • Spare glasses or contact lenses
  • Face masks

Stay Optimistic, Be Prepared

No one is ever completely ready for disaster to strike. But like Stephen King implies, perhaps we can enjoy life more today if we feel more confident that we are as prepared as we can be for potential uncertainty tomorrow.

Brian K. Schiess, CFP®, EA® is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER® professional with Modera Wealth Management, LLC in Westwood, NJ. He may be reached at  or 201-768-4600.

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