Personal Disaster Recovery

Personal disaster recovery can be emotionally and physically overwhelming; just ask anyone who has lived through the process of recovering from a disaster.

However, with some pre-planning and access to these recovery tips you can help minimize the some of the stress and risks associated with the recovery process.

The most important step in pre-planning is taking an inventory of your belongings. This will help when filing insurance claims.

You can use this downloadable document to: Inventory Your Stuff

A Personal Disaster Recovery Plan

Document Protection - Help protect your important documents by keeping them in a fire and water proof safe. This kind of safe is easy to carry when you have to evacuate and easy to recover if you are unable to grab it before a disaster occurs.

You may also want to consider scanning and storing your important documents on your computer.

You can either download these to a USB drive or backup your computer online with Carbonite, Dropbox or another virtual cloud data backup program.

Post Disaster Intervention

Know that disaster recovery officials may only allow persons to access their homes for a very limited time, if at all, so pre-planning a strategy of action for recovery of personal collections is important.

Please note that not everything that is
water-damaged is unrecoverable.

Sometimes cherished possessions such as great-grandma's quilt, a wedding album and important personal documents (deeds, mortgages, birth certificates) can be saved.

  • Often official modern documents (from the past 20 years) are duplicated elsewhere (like a state archive, bank microfilm or hospital) but in a widespread disaster these records also could be affected. The more local or old the items are, the harder they may be to replace.

  • If possible, prepare a kit (including flashlight, waterproof shoes, plastic boxes or boxes lined with clear garbage bags, camera and film to record inventory of damage for insurance purposes) to carry out wet materials to another location based on guidelines found below.

Focus energies on the important unique and salvageable items, not ones that someone else has an unaffected copy of (for example, Mom in Denver has a copy of the wedding album).

  • Don't try to pull apart materials that have dried and are stuck together, such as photo albums with facing photographs. If they are still wet, some recovery may still be possible (see tips).

  • See FEMA tips for recovery suggestions by type, including handling wet, dirty and moldy materials, freezing and drying. (Some procedures can be attempted by individuals, but bulk freezing and vacuum freeze drying by a disaster recovery vendor is most effective.

  • Be aware that mold may be a severe problem if the item is no longer submerged and take personal safety precautions.

Mold can be dangerous and can spread to other objects, so dry or freeze moldy objects as soon as possible according to guidelines in the Personal Disaster Recovery Steps. guide. This is a free download.

Insurance Information

Regular reviews of your insurance needs, coverage limits, and limitations are a must. The time to determine how much coverage you need is before the disaster strikes.

It is easy to forget your broker and agent’s name and phone number in the heat of the moment. The following information should also be included with your disaster
preparedness plan:

  • Broker/agent name, business, and home
    phone numbers
  • Name of insurance carrier
  • Policy number(s)
  • Policy coverage, limits and deductibles,
    copies of policies – if possible.

After a disaster notify your the insurance broker/agent or the carrier directly to inform them of the loss. In cases of theft or vandalism, the police should also be notified. Generally, the insurance company will require a copy of the police report before processing the claim.

  • Immediately after a loss occurs, you should take whatever measures are necessary to protect everything from further damage (i.e. temporary repairs, water extraction, securing damaged entrances, windows, shoring, etc.).
  • These emergency repairs are mandated on most policies to protect the property..
  • Keep accurate records of all emergency repairs and expenses incurred to be turned over to the adjuster.
  • The adjuster will provide inventory sheets for content items damaged beyond restoration. These total loss items will be listed along with a description of the item, brand name and serial number, model number, age, and quantity.
  • Keeping a prepared inventory sheet on file for all contents which includes this information could eliminate costly hours trying to remember all of the items which were completely destroyed by fire.

Emotional Side of Disaster Recovery

The emotional toll that disaster brings can sometimes be even more devastating than the financial strains of damage and loss of home, business, or personal property.

Understand Disaster Events Everyone who sees or experiences a disaster is affected by it in some way.

It is normal to feel anxious about your own safety and that of your family and close friends.

  • Profound sadness, grief, and anger are normal reactions to an extraordinary event.
  • Acknowledging your feelings helps you recover.
  • Focusing on your strengths and abilities helps you heal.
  • Accepting help from community programs and resources is healthy.
  • Recognize that everyone has different needs and various ways of coping.
  • It is common to want to strike back at people who have caused great pain.
  • Children and older adults are of special concern in the aftermath of disasters. Even individuals who experience a disaster “second hand” through exposure to extensive media coverage can be affected.

Easing Disaster-Related Stress
The following are ways to ease disaster-related stress:

  • Talk with someone about your feelings - anger, sorrow, and other emotions - even though it may be difficult.
  • Seek help from professional counselors who deal with post-disaster stress.
  • Do not hold yourself responsible for the disastrous event or be frustrated because you feel you cannot help directly in the rescue work.
  • Take steps to promote your own physical and emotional healing by healthy eating, rest, exercise, relaxation, and meditation.
  • Maintain a normal family and daily routine, limiting demanding responsibilities on yourself and your family.
  • Spend time with family and friends.
  • Participate in memorials.
  • Use existing support groups of family, friends, and religious institutions.
  • Ensure you are ready for future events by restocking your disaster supplies kits and updating your family disaster plan. Doing these positive actions can be comforting.

Rebuilding Cautions

Unfortunately, storms and natural disasters bring out those who take advantage of the situation. But by following a few practical guidelines, you can help protect yourself from additional loss:

  • Try to work with local or known contractors - verify with the Better Business Bureau to do repairs or home improvements in your area.
  • Don’t pay for work until it is finished and you are satisfied (if a reasonable down payment is required, get a written contract detailing
    all the work to be performed).
  • Pay with a check or a credit card.
  • Beware of a contractor who tries to pressure you. If an offer is only good “now or never,” find someone else.
  • Obtain written estimates for all proposed work that include everything to be done WITH prices.
  • Also, beware of charity scams that might use a storm to make their pleas for donations more plausible; only give to organizations you know and recognize.


Disaster Recovery of Personal Items - Nora Lockshin - Paper Conservator / Smithsonian Institution Archives