By Henry Alpert
When my fiancée and I evacuated for Hurricane Katrina in 2005, like other New Orleans residents we thought we’d return home in a few days. We prepared for a short trip, but it wasn’t until two months later that we were able to return to our barely functioning city.
As New Orleans got back on its feet and everyone exchanged their Katrina stories, locals developed new game plans about what to do for future evacuations. Hurricane Isaac wasn’t as monstrous as Katrina, but my now-wife, who is seven months pregnant, and I thought it best to take our 3-year-old son and dog out of harm’s way. For the Isaac evacuation, I was better prepared and took steps to safeguard my family’s financial accounts and identities:
The File Box
I keep an evacuation folder in my file cabinet that contains passports, Social Security cards, official documents (birth and marriage certificates), a couple hundred dollars in cash, our flood insurance policy, and other documents. I also own a portable file box. When we were packing hastily, it only took a second to slip my pre-assembled file folder into the box. I’d heard that looters had stolen checkbooks after Katrina, so I threw in my blank checks, along with some old journals and letters.
Luckily, Katrina didn’t destroy my computer, but it made me aware how vulnerable my digital life was. Since then, I faithfully have used an automatic backup service called CrashPlan. All my financial and work records, music files, and digital photos are routinely backed up from my main computer to a secure server in the cloud. Before we left for Isaac, I took fresh pictures of every room in our house and loaded them to the computer (and by extension the backup server) in case I’d need to make an insurance claim.
Ultimately, the expansion of cloud computing has made protecting online data for an evacuation much easier. I use LastPass to keep my passwords safe. Dropbox syncs my desktop files to my laptop, most account information is readily accessible online, and smartphones make it easier to stay informed.
Securing the House
We didn’t take everything we should have. Our wedding album went on a high shelf away from windows, as did a crammed photo box that I wrapped in plastic grocery bags. In hindsight, I should have slipped my old tax returns into the file box since my accountant doesn’t provide PDFs. Although Facebook is a good way to commiserate with friends about hurricane ordeals, my wife and I didn’t post that we had evacuated. We didn’t want the world to know we were far away in a Mississippi motel.
The Internet abounds with tips and checklists for disaster preparation, but ultimately everyone has to make personal choices about which tips to follow and risks to take. For example, my file box protected my important documents from wind, water and looters, but what if I were careless or easily distracted? The box could have been left behind when shuffling from one motel to another, or could have been stolen from a rest area parking lot. When I returned to New Orleans, my house was without power, so I went to a coffee shop to access Wi-Fi. The shop’s credit card machine was down, and the clerk wrote my card info on a scrap of paper to call in later. I let her do it. Was it risky? Perhaps.
In addition to backed-up computer files, I luckily also have an identity theft management service from my primary bank. Evacuations are as unpredictable as hurricanes, and despite my precautions, I might one day need that extra backup.
Henry Alpert is a New Orleans-based writer and communications consultant who creates marketing materials and promotional pieces for his clients. He frequently collaborates with Identity Theft 911 on projects and can be reached at Action Copy.
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