The three P’s of disaster preparedness: How legal issues are critical during hurricane season
It only takes one hurricane to change your life, your home, and your community. Just ask anyone in the Florida Panhandle who survived Hurricane Michael in 2018 or those living in the Florida peninsula or the Keys who went through Irma in 2017. These communities are still waiting today, in 2020, to recover, rebuild, and repair. The 2020 Hurricane Season began June 1 and runs through November. The time is now to prepare.
Legal Services of North Florida (LSNF) provides free legal help to 16 counties in North Florida, most of which were affected by Hurricane Michael. Since Hurricane Ivan in 2004, the LSNF team has actively responded to disasters faced by our communities, by providing assistance to those clients recovering from hurricanes, flooding, tornadoes, and oil spills. Now the COVID-19 health emergency is impacting everyone in our communities in unprecedented ways, showing us again that preparedness is the key to recovery. Taking action now can save you and your family heartache, loss, money, and do so much more to alleviate the challenges which a disaster can bring overnight. It is never too late to start getting prepared.
The Three P’s of Disaster Legal Preparedness
As Floridians, we hear the message every season — Prepare! We know we need to update our disaster kit with food, water, medicine, batteries, and more. LSNF wants to remind you not to forget the Three P’s of Disaster LEGAL Preparedness — Paper, Pictures, and Property.
Paper: We know that we should protect important documents, but what documents are important? And why does it matter? In a disaster scenario, important documents are those that you should have at the ready to take with you if you need to evacuate. Think about what you would need if you lost your home — different forms of identification, like your driver’s license or state-issued ID, immigration/visa documents, birth certificates, marriage license, Social Security card, or even your passport. In the wake of a hurricane, just like right now during the COVID-19 health emergency, courthouses and government offices in your area may be closed to the public or have very limited access. This makes it difficult to get copies of important documents or court records. Identification documents are not the only important papers to consider. Do you have easy-to-access copies of child custody orders and orders of protection? Can you access your home, auto, or other insurance policies? These items may be lost if your home is damaged, or you may be delayed in returning to your home if you evacuated while first responders clear other damage.
Property: For those who own or rent a home, there are actions you can take to protect your property. For homeowners, proof of ownership is important. LSNF has helped many who believe they own their home but don’t have legal documentation showing they do, which means that FEMA and others may not recognize them as the legal homeowners. Without proof that you own your home, you are limited in what you can do with the property even if you live there. Without proof of ownership, you may not be able to sell your house, insure it, finance it, repair it, rent it, or reduce the taxes on it. You may not be able to receive disaster financial assistance to repair damages caused by a storm. The time to get proof of ownership, also known as clear title, on your property is before a storm. Gather any legal documents on the home you have and talk with an attorney to determine the steps necessary to establish or prove ownership of your home.
Pictures: Whether you rent or own your home, having photos of your property and house is critical before disaster hits. Take photos of the inside and outside of your home and any additional structures, like garages or sheds. Take photos of the contents as well. When you take photos, make sure to use a time stamp as well, if possible. After the storm has passed and it is safe to return to the property, take pictures of the damage both inside and outside. If you apply for disaster assistance because there is damage to your home, the photographs will help to prove that the damage was caused by the weather.
Before this hurricane season gets away from you, take some time to consider how you can store documents in your disaster emergency kit. Consider a fire and waterproof box that can be easily reached and removed for quick exit if you evacuate. You may want to keep extra paper copies in another location. If you have access to a computer, you may also wish to store a backup of additional copies on its hard drive or in the cloud.
It’s impossible to know the impact of a disaster before the disaster strikes, so planning when a storm isn’t in sight makes you and your family safer when one comes. Disasters are already difficult enough; take care of things now so you can feel secure later.
Stephanie Johnson, is a senior attorney with Legal Services of North Florida