As people make the decision to flee or hunker down during a natural disaster, most thought goes to making sure they have their basic needs met. Of course, food, water, and shelter come first, but your planning should also include protecting your personal and financial documents.

There are a number of ways to do this, and even those in the path of Hurricane Irma can still take some steps to protect their most important paperwork. Ideally these moves would be made long before disaster strikes, but even as time dwindles, or even during a storm, there are things you can do.

A life insurance policy with a pen and pair of eyeglasses on top of it

Insurance policies are one type of document you need to protect. Image source: Getty Images.

Take pictures and scans

In the immediate aftermath of a storm, there are certain documents that will be immediately important. For example, you will want access to any insurance policies. In some cases that's as simple as checking your account online to make sure details are available there. In other cases, especially with less tech-friendly insurance companies, you will want physical copies.

In that case, there are free apps for both Android and iOS phones that make it easy to scan documents. You can use these to record copies of your policies and email them to yourself or a relative or friend outside the storm zone. This process requires decent lighting, and it's a bit slow, but it's easy and makes shockingly good copies.

For single-page documents like birth certificates, licenses, and anything else, you can make a backup copy by taking a picture. These won't have any legal standing, but having the pictures may makes it easier to replace them.

What's the best way to protect important documents?

The best way to protect documents of all types in your home is to keep them in waterproof containers. Look in stores and online for waterproof pouches, file folders, bags, and other containers. You might also want to consider containers that are both water- and fire-safe.

Many of the items offered in this space are available for overnight delivery. That means that even people who cut it close might still be able to order what they need.

The second option is keeping your documents off-site. That could mean a safe deposit box at a bank (which are often water- and fireproof). It could also mean having copies of everything in a secure location at a friend's or relative's house in another geographic locale.

What documents need protecting?

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has official guidelines for what documents you should protect. This is by no means a complete list, but it hits the highlights of what most people will want to keep safe:

  • Vital records: Driver's licenses, birth certificates, adoption papers, Social Security cards, passports, citizenship papers, child custody papers, military IDs, and records/photos for any pets as well as ID chip numbers if applicable.
  • Insurance policies: You will want at least the policy number and contact information for your homeowners, renters, flood, earthquake, auto, life, health, disability, long-term care, and any other policies.
  • Property records: Real estate deeds of trust and at least the two-page settlement document from any mortgages, auto/boat/RV registration and titles; and a video or pictures inventorying your possessions.
  • Medical information: Prescription information (drug name and dosage), health insurance identification cards, physician names and phone numbers, powers of attorney for healthcare, and living wills.
  • Estate planning documents: Wills, trusts, funeral instructions, powers of attorney, attorney names and phone numbers.
  • Financial records: First two pages of your previous year's federal and state tax returns, list of stocks/bonds, brokerage and retirement account info, credit card, checking and savings account numbers, as well as the associated contacts.

Better safe than sorry

If you don't have your insurance policy number after a natural disaster or weather event, you still have insurance. Having the papers, however, makes getting your needs met easier at a time when many providers will be overwhelmed. This is a case where you hope to never need to use any of the things you have prepped, but it's better to be safe than sorry.

Of course, if you're already in a storm or other natural disaster, don't do anything that compromises your safety. Even the most important documents can be replaced and it's never worth risking your safety to protect a possession.