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October 10, 2005

Filling in the blanks


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Forgive me for dashing copyright law (or something) to smithereens here, but there was a most informative article in the New York Times that I knew would be completely unavailable for webly public consumption in ten minutes unless I copied it outright, thus providing a way of adding the link reliably to my New and Improved List for Surviving the Avian Flu. It's doubtful that you will be fleeing anywhere in the case of a pandemic, but you may be dying, so you might as well have your ducks in a row. And then again, there may be a flood or an earthquake the way things are going, so, on that cheery note, here is the article, in its entirety:

How to Prepare for One Really Quick Getaway

What is the first thing you will grab from your home if your house floods, catches on fire or comes tumbling down in an earthquake? Family photos? The pets? The Hummel figurines?

It probably will not be your financial and medical records, the very things you will need to rebuild your life after a disaster. If you are like most people, you have documents stashed in various places throughout your home, perhaps some under lock and key. And with your mind racing as danger hits, you are not going to have the time or wherewithal to figure out which ones you need.

In any case, your financial and medical records would be such a large and unwieldy pile that you would just say forget about it, grab Fluffy and scramble out of there. Indeed, that is probably your reaction any time someone suggests you get your records organized.

But wait. Do not run away yet. New technology is making this tedious task less odious, and surprisingly, it is not that expensive.

All told, you can secure your records in a weekend afternoon. Even better, doing all this has a wonderful side effect: it can put you in better financial shape to survive a disaster because you will end up a lot smarter about how you spend and save money. For instance, one of the first things to do is compile a list of where everything is - account numbers and the locations of important documents. The list will help you or anyone in your family locate things you need for the insurance adjuster or relief worker. (See below)

This is really the "if hit by a bus" list that financial planners have been recommending you compile for your heirs. If you think of the list that way, you will be reminded of your mortality and you will not want to write it. But think of the families displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita or by California wildfires, and the psychological barrier collapses. The list becomes a much easier sell now, said Brent Neiser, a director for the National Endowment for Financial Education. "It forces you to think," he said.

Here is what else you have to do to protect your records and yourself:

RECORD: Once you have made your basic list, save it on a U.S.B. flash drive. A 256-megabyte drive, which you can buy for $20 or even less if you catch a store promotion, gives you enough space for that file and all the other suggestions mentioned below.

Several of the big flash drive makers, like SanDisk and Lexar Media, are now selling more advanced drives that allow you to encrypt the data so others cannot read it without knowing the alphanumeric key that unlocks the code. Some are even shock proofed with heavier rubber and plastic coatings. Those will cost about $10 to $20 more, but are certainly worth it when you consider the sensitivity of the data on them.

It is also a good idea to copy the contents onto additional drives for backup and for other members of the family.

BONUS: When you are listing the credit cards, also note the credit limits so you will know how much you could spend in an emergency. If your credit cards are at their limits now, you are not going to have any cushion to fall back on. So start paying off balances, beginning with the card carrying the highest interest rate.

SCAN: Some important documents are on paper and you will want copies of them with you: tax returns for the last three years (Form 1040 is all you will need in an emergency), a recent pay stub, birth certificates, marriage license, the deed to your home and insurance policy pages that list your coverage. If you do not have a scanner or a printer with a flat scanner, take the pile of documents down to a copy center like Kinko's to scan. Record the image files on the U.S.B. drive.

BONUS: Take the opportunity to check your insurance coverage for potential disasters like flooding. With homes appreciating in value, you may also find you need to increase coverage.

SHOOT: Some personal finance advisers suggest that you make a spreadsheet listing everything you own and enter the date and price paid and then file all the receipts and ... yeah, yeah. You will never do it. But creating a detailed inventory of everything you own need not be a major chore when technology comes to the rescue. Many households now have a camcorder or digital camera. Walk around each room and take a picture of each item. Then, either store all the photos on a memory card (unless you live in the Biltmore mansion, you can load all the photos on a 256- or 512-megabyte card). Or you can transfer them to the same U.S.B. drive with your other documents.

Describe each object on the camcorder soundtrack or in the file name of the digital photo. Make an extra copy on another card or drive. "If you give one to your insurance adjuster, you go to the front of the line," Mr. Neiser said.

For additional protection, you could upload the photos - as well as all your beloved family photos - to one of the free online photo services like Flickr.com, Picasa.com, Snapfish.com, or Kodakgallery.com. Anybody you choose can then have access to them from any computer anywhere. (Make sure to set the privacy options, though.)

BONUS: You are going to discover a lot of stuff you no longer want or need. Sell it or donate it and take a tax deduction. Intuit, maker of Quicken and TurboTax, sells a $20 program called ItsDeductible that estimates the value of donated items, but Bankrate.com and Salvationarmyusa.org have free valuation guides.

SECURE: Now it is time for your medical records. You can place your health history as well as digitized copies of X-rays, scans and electrocardiograms on the same encrypted flash drive.

Those with serious medical conditions may want to consider a product sold by the nonprofit organization that developed the MedicAlert bracelet 50 years ago. It sells a special USB flash drive on its Web site, www.medicalert.org, called the E-HealthKey for $85. SanDisk originally developed the product for the Army. Pop the flash drive into any computer and a screen flashes with your medical condition to alert emergency room personnel, for instance, to an allergy or your use of a pacemaker. But beyond that screen, medical information you enter with the help of a user-friendly program right on the drive is encrypted.

For an additional $20-a-year fee, MedicAlert uploads your data to its server so you have a backup.

The E-HealthKey is only available for PC's running Windows XP or Windows 2000. You may want to wait until November when the organization issues an improved version.

BONUS: The E-HealthKey software, created by a division of Bio-Imaging Technologies, also plots your weight, cholesterol or anything you regularly record, onto a graph. "It's a great wellness tool," said Ramesh Srinivasan, MedicAlert's vice president for marketing. If you are going to run for your life, clutching your flash drive and the Hummels, you had better be healthy.


Use the space below to enter vital information such as account numbers, PIN numbers and the locations of important documents. Keep this list someplace secure, but where family members can get it quickly. Storing it in an encrypted electronic file on a flash drive is a good idea, as long as family members can recall the password for access.

Account Numbers

Credit Cards (and toll-free numbers):

Bank Accounts (and PIN numbers, passwords and toll-free numbers):

Investment Accounts (and PIN numbers, passwords and toll-free numbers):

Family Social Security Numbers:

Insurance Policies:


Social Security Cards:


Living Will:

Power of Attorney:


Insurance Policies:

Company Benefits:

Safe Deposit Box Key:

Household Inventory:

THE END of all the purloined material

Thank you Damon, sorry Times, but in sorry times there are those of us who throw our scruples out the window (unlike your own stalwart Ms. Miller) and even order tamiflu , without a prescription, from the internet.

Photo note: The patio at Starbucks in the rain, conveniently located in front of a crosswalk for extra stripes.

Posted by Dakota at October 10, 2005 03:38 PM