A significant part of being prepared and being able to weather a crisis is having information. Remember, those in charge now will make it their first priority after TSHTF to return to the status quo. Banks and mortgage companies will do everything possible to continue banking and lending. Landlords will do whatever it takes to make sure they continue to collect rent from their tenants, and any police or military personnel you come into contact with will be very unhappy if you cannot prove who you are or otherwise deflect suspicion.
You can call having critical information available during and after a crisis “life continuity.” There are three aspects to it: collection, protection, and dispersion.
The first step is collection. Just as with other aspects of your survival plan, you’ll want to make a list of the information you want to collect and have available during and after a crisis. Such a list should include:
– medical information and records for all family members
– names, addresses, and contact numbers of relatives, doctors and insurance companies
– copies of wills, living trusts, powers of attorney, and other legal documents
– copies of insurance policies
– copies of birth certificates, wedding licenses, children’s school records, and college transcripts
– copies of property ownership documents, such as mortgage agreements and property deeds
– copies of driver licenses and passports
– e-books or scanned pages from knowledge materials you’ve collected
– as many family photos as you feel you need, but at a minimum make sure there is a clear “head shot” of everyone in your family that can be used by authorities if needed to conduct a search
– video taped walk-throughs of your house and property showing major purchases and valuables and the condition of any buildings
While some of the items above might seem like overkill, it is important to remember that you can never have enough supporting documentation if you ever need to prove your case or prove your identity. Imagine bugging out of your home and going to your retreat for three months, only to return to your home after the all clear to find it occupied by squatters. Will you be able to prove the house is yours? If your insurance company denies your claim, will you have the materials ready to counter their argument in your appeal?
Once you’ve collected the documents and photos, the next step is protection. At a minimum, you’ll want to have a fireproof box or safe to hold your documents. Even better, get a box or safe that is waterproof as well. For example, Sentry makes a small waterproof and fireproof lockbox for well under $100. You might even be able to pick one up for much less at a garage sale or flea market. Put your safe in an obscure location in your home, and use any supplied mounting hardware to mount the safe to the floor or wall to prevent thieves from simply lifting it up and walking away with it. Avoid any safe or lockbox that requires power to operate, such as batteries or a wall plug. This includes the fancy safes with biometric access mechanisms. You don’t need Fort Knox; you just need to be reasonably protected. If you can’t afford a lockbox or safe, at least put your document stash into a large Ziploc bag and put it somewhere safe. You could put it into a locking file cabinet or even put it into a five-gallon pail and bury it.
Dispersion is another key element to protecting your information stash. Make copies of everything and mail a set to your lawyer and a couple sets to trusted family members. Mailing a set to family outside of your region is an especially good idea. For example, if you live in the Midwest, you would want to send a copy to someone on the east coast or perhaps out west. Use a service with a tracking number that requires a signature so that you can be sure the documents arrive at their location. Even better is to scan everything into an electronic format. PDF is best, as it can be read on just about any computer. Take the electronic copies and write them to a CD or DVD, also known as “burning to disk” since the CD/DVD drive’s laser actually burns information into the disk. CD and DVD writers are very cheap nowadays, on the order of $20-$30 for a brand new unit and a few dollars for the disk media. Keep a couple copies along with your paper (hard) copies, and send out a DVD to your family members instead of a large pack of documents.
Some people also keep electronic copies of their important documents on USB keys. USB keys are also known as “thumb drives” because of their size. Any computer with a USB port can access a USB key as if it was a hard drive. Keep in mind, though, that a USB key is electronic and will be susceptible to anything that would damage electronics such as a magnetic field. While it might not seem like a good idea to keep important info on something that could end up damaged, the point is to analyze the trade-off between convenience and accessibility without hurting reliability. If you have hard copies of everything, then using something as convenient as a USB key might be an advantage. For example, you could hook the USB key to your belt and walk into a disaster relief shelter to use the computer there instead of walking around with a big pack of important papers.
If you choose to make electronic copies of your information, you will want to encrypt everything and make sure to use innocent-sounding labels. Imagine sending a DVD labeled “Our Family’s Important Information” to someone on the other side of the country. If that DVD were to fall into the wrong hands, those people would have everything they needed to steal your identity. Instead, label the CD or DVD something like “Our Family Vacation 2006” where “2006” is the year that the DVD was made. That way you will know which is the most recent.
Encrypting your information sounds difficult, but it is actually pretty easy. The only downside is that you will need a computer to decrypt the information once it is encrypted. There are numerous free and open encryption programs available at no charge. My favorite is called TrueCrypt. How it works is beyond the scope of this article, but it is safe to say that if you encrypt your information with TrueCrypt, it would take all the computers in the world several hundreds of years to crack it. TrueCrypt runs on Windows computers only, but similar applications are available for Mac OS X and Linux.
If you are technically savvy and really want to take your USB key to the next level, you can install a complete operating system onto the USB key itself. An example would be PenDrive Linux or Damn Small Linux. Damn Small Linux is only 50 MB in size! With the OS right on your USB key, you could keep all your information encrypted and never have to worry about what type of computer you would need to decrypt and view your information.
Many people focus on the tangible aspects of being prepared. Beans, bandages and bullets are important, but so are intangibles like information. With a small amount of effort and little to no expenses, you can make sure all the information your family might need to survive, regroup, and move on is protected and in an easily-accessible and safe location.