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Ready to grab and go

You can't take the filing cabinet. But you can prepare for an evacuation with technology that makes papers and inventories portable. It's one less thing to worry about.

November 06, 2005|Jennifer Lisle | Special to The Times

JEFF BASENBERG didn't have much time when he evacuated his Box Canyon home on Sept. 28.

"The fire was moving so fast," Basenberg said. "Within 30 minutes there was a lot of smoke, and it was hard to breathe outside."

But because Basenberg and his family knew that canyon living involves the threat of wildfires, they were prepared to make a quick getaway.

"All of my financial documents are stored at my office, not here, and so I just took some clothes, my guitar and the family photographs that we don't have on a disc," he said.

A few months ago, making plans for a possible evacuation might have seemed a bit paranoid. But with the recent onslaught of hurricanes, floods and, locally, wildfires, disaster preparedness is a practical response. And as observers learned from the victims of Hurricane Katrina -- many of whom lost all of their personal, professional and medical records -- residents can't depend on local offices and government agencies to keep documents intact in a widespread disaster.

Technology, in the form of portable hard drives, flash or other memory cards and digital cameras, can make it easy to back up personal-paper trails and have them secured well ahead of a fire or earthquake.

Under pressure to get out the door, no one has time to ponder whether to grab Grandma's silver spoon collection or a birth certificate.

"If it's a wildfire, you may only have 20 minutes' warning before you have to leave your house. And once the earth starts shaking, you don't have time to start looking around for important documents," said H.T. Linke, director of communications for the American Red Cross of Greater Los Angeles.

Leaving the house, Linke said, the homeowner should take only essentials -- cash, several forms of identification, such as a driver's license and passport, contact phone numbers at the insurance agency and bank, and a key to the safe-deposit box. It can also help to have copies of medical and eyeglass prescriptions at the ready.

"It's best if it's all together in a backpack near the front door," he said. "So you could grab it if you only had two minutes to leave the house."

That filing cabinet full of important papers and documents should be copied or stored remotely, or both, ahead of time. Although it's an attractive last-minute type of idea, loading up the fridge with important documents and other valuables is discouraged by the Red Cross. According to Linke, refrigerators are not generally built to withstand earthquakes or fires.

In case homeowners are evacuated for a long period, experts recommend they have copies of birth certificates, Social Security cards, marriage certificates, mortgage and title documents, wills, credit-card and recent tax-return information. If only a single hard copy of these documents exists, they should be scanned into a computer and stored in an accessible file. Copies can also be sent to relatives or friends who live far enough away that they wouldn't be affected by a local disaster.

To create a complete backup system for personal-computer files, Joseph Weiss, precinct chief at the Geek Squad computer support task force in Santa Monica, recommended investing in an external USB hard drive.

"These systems work really well because they plug right into your computer and with the touch of a button, you've backed up everything from your hard drive," he said.

Store the hard drive remotely, in a safe deposit box or another secure location. Weiss also recommended that the hard drive be backed up again periodically.

Portable or external USB hard drives are available in a range of sizes and prices, but a mid-range 80-gigabyte unit should accommodate a whole cul-de-sac's worth of household files for about $105. Smaller, wallet-size hard drives have less memory for slightly more money, about $110 for a 40-gigabyte unit.

Flash cards are even smaller, usually keychain size, and function as memory holders. A one-gigabyte unit, the equivalent of 50 floppy discs, can hold about 100 high-resolution photos or a home office worth of documents. They are usually available for about $70.

Some external hard drives and flash cards come equipped with password protection features to prevent identity theft. If they're not part of the package, data encryption software programs can be bought or downloaded from the Internet for about $30.

It is also possible to use online resources to store personal data, but unless the user has the bandwidth of a small- to medium-sized business, Weiss said these services are too costly and time-consuming to be practical for personal use at this point.

Although accountants should have their clients' tax returns and backup information on file, Leon Janks, a tax specialist and partner in Green Hasson & Janks in Westwood, recommended that homeowners make sure records exist for the last three years, the period for which the federal government can order an audit. For state taxes, California's statute spans four years.

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