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Start packing up, Floridians

Ernesto_strike_models_even_later_sun0827_1 I hate that graphic from the South Florida Water Management District. Based on those multicolored strands, it looks like my relatives and friends in Florida are going to be visited very soon by Hurricane Ernesto.

Having spent a little more than six years in Florida, the only good thing I can say about hurricanes is that they are rarely surprise visitors. Sure, Charley took a harder right turn than expected by many people, but it still was within the dreaded "cone of error."

So, as remote a possibility as a strike might be, you still have an idea of whether you might be in a storm's path. Of course, that's a curse as well as a blessing. Knowing that a storm might hit you just gives you that much longer to dread what could happen -- the wind, the rain, the leaking roof/walls/windows, the fallen trees, the downed power lines.

The hubby and I went through three hurricanes (Irene in 1999 and Frances and Jeanne in 2004), a handful of tropical storms and, at least in my case, a couple of instances of being scared more than I ever thought possible. And I spent the first half of my life in tornado country!

At least for the hurricane-portion of our natural disaster life, most of the damage the hubby and I incurred was emotional and psychological, although the one-two punch in '04 did take a toll on our property, too.

We found that one way to keep our minds off a potential hurricane hit was to spend time preparing. Of course, by now all of Florida's stores are out of ice, bottled water, bread and paper goods.

But there's still time for residents to take some pre-storm-strike financial steps.

First, get a waterproof container -- we used a Rubbermaid tub with a snap-lock top -- in which to put your financial documents. Nothing too big, since you want to be able to easily carry it with you in case you need to evacuate. Now for what goes in there.

Go to the ATM today. You'll need cash if power is out, since businesses won't be able to process credit card transactions.

It's too late to make changes to your insurance coverage, but you need to at least have your policy handy so you can refer to it if you need to make claims. If you have a secure spot for valuables -- a home safe you're sure will survive a storm's wind and water or a safe deposit box -- make a copy of the policy and put the original in the safe/bank box. Or vice versa, if you feel more secure hanging onto the original.

Pull out your most recent bank and investment statements so you'll have access to those account numbers if need be. Same for your tax returns. You'll need your last filing if you end up in a major disaster area and decide to submit an amended return to more quickly claim any storm damage costs. All these documents also should go in the storm-prep tub.

If you have passports, stick them in there, too, along with birth and marriage certificates and copies of each family member's driver's license.

Also include all personal property related paperwork: your home's deed and loan information (you might need to call your lender to make arrangements for late payments if you're particularly hard hit and/or out of work for a while because of the storm), car titles, as well as snapshots, digital photos or videotapes of your property before the storm hits. These will help expedite any insurance claims.

Back up your computer files digitally and/or print out important documents. Put both the paper and digital backups in the bin.

As for all the documents you've copied, consider making one more of each and sending them to a friend or family member who lives out of the storm strike area and whom you can trust not to snoop into your financial details. And if you have such non-nosy relatives, call the Guinness Book of World Records, because I'm sure it's a first. Sorry. I joke when I'm nervous, even when it's a case of nerves for others!

Finally, don't panic. Making it through a storm, both physically and financially, is quite doable as long as you prepare, pay attention to official alerts and don't take any stupid chances. Even if you're not in a hurricane zone, you should put together a financial survival kit and regularly update it because disasters can strike any time, any place.

For now, though, all you Floridians, batten down the hatches. Those of us who are out of harm's way will keep you in our thoughts and our fingers crossed that Ernesto will fizzle.


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