By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/4/2007 6:19:50 PM ET 2007-12-04T23:19:50

I have a confession to make: I’m not the most organized person in the world.

Taking one look at my desk, this would not come as a surprise. I consider organizing my important documents and files to be a Sisyphean task. The rooms in my almost brand-new townhouse, when company isn’t expected, are something of a continual disaster area, in that piles of paper are constantly in motion and in flux, waiting to be filed or acted upon.

So when I hear about fires in southern California, or hurricanes in the southeast, I start getting a little nervous. What if I had to leave with 15 minutes notice? Would I be able to grab my house papers, photos and laptop in time and would I have everything I need to get my life going again?

I’d be lucky to get out with my laptop. My iPod, maybe.

I don’t know about you, but going even a day without my laptop is something I can barely think of, it’s become so much like an extension of myself and my life, my number one link to the outside world when I’m not out and about or at work.

I’m so unprepared and thinking about it led me to realize there are plenty of options out there for the average person. This is of course assuming you have more than a few minutes and that flames are not whipping up on your heels. The most important thing to save is your life and those of your family, so all this secondary, but if you have time...

“What is the single most important commodity most people have in their house? It’s your information,” said Michael Griggs, president of the Denver-based Disaster Restoration, Inc.

Sure, copies of your insurance plans, mortgages, deeds, birth certificates, 401K’s, pay stubs, etc. are already out there — with the other party in those transactions. But if you feel better when you have these documents, there are some options for you.

But first, you must go the route of scanning those documents in, or making sure they send you the PDF’s.  If you don’t already have a paper feed scanner, get one. Same with photos. Scan in those prints that have as their originals negatives. (Kids will have no idea what we’re talking about. Yes, negatives. Before digital. Yes, you had to actually wait a whole hour before they were developed!) And don’t even get me started on music. The idea that you’re filling your iPod (or Zune or alternate would-be iPod killer) with hundreds, thousands of songs that aren’t backed up — but are paid for! — should send a chill up your spine.

Also use that digital camera to make quick copies of the documents if you want to play spy daddy, or use it to document what is in your house and outside as an accurate visual record. In a pinch, use your camera phone.

You must, must, have digital back-ups of these documents. Paper burns. Paper flies away. Paper washes away. At least with digitized versions, you’ve got the first step toward moving it online or onto off-site servers where they can stand a chance of life after disaster strikes.

You can store the originals in a safety deposit box at your local bank. If you must have the security of having the digital copies close by, consider going a little spendy and investing in something hardcore. Think safe — like something out of a heist movie, sort of.

While Griggs’ company specializes in mostly corporate recovery, he said some of the same tools can also be used by homeowners.

“If you have 24 hours you’re going to be able to get what you need out of your house,” Griggs said. “If you have 20 minutes, you’re going to grab a couple pictures but in that case, a fire safe will be valuable.”

At the very least, he recommends a safe, but not just any safe. Griggs recommends one that can withstand not only heat, but also water and building collapse. It’s one you can’t crack — at least not in the way you would in “Ocean’s Eleven.”

He uses the ioSafe (iosafe.com), a Terminator-like data storage center that Just Won’t Die, insomuch as inanimate objects can acquire such characteristics. Griggs called it “a black box for a corporation.” Its claim to fame is being able to withstand fires for 4 hours, submersion in freshwater or seawater up to 30 feet and if a building collapses on it.

OK, maybe it’s more like the self-healing cheerleader from “Heroes.” Any way you try to destroy this baby, it’s not going to go down easily.

But that’s the extreme high end. What can the average person who has the means and access to the Internets do?

MozyHome is free. It gives you 2 GB of space; otherwise unlimited backup is $4.95 a month.

“The only real way to protect your digital pictures, family history files, personal tax records and all your other computer data is to backup online. Natural disasters like hurricanes, floods and fires can quickly damage an external hard drive or destroy a set of backup DVDs,” said Vance Checkett, director of business operations.

The advantage to Mozy, Checkett says, is that all of your data is stored securely in a professionally managed data center. Private encryption allows you access only.

Other services out there that give you an opportunity to move your files out of the house and into the safety Net, Xdrive (xdrive.com) with 5 free GB, Flickr (for photos) and .Mac (apple.com/dotmac/backup.html) and Medic Alert’s E-Key (for medical files that might not always travel from one physician to the next, especially in an era with changing health plans) among them.

Contrary to its name, .Mac is for PC users too. For about $100 a year, users are allowed 10 GB of online space to preserve their documents, photos and music. (Already, there’s a problem with those limits since many iPods are in the 80 GB range) But you have to be a Mac user to take advantage of one of the more convenient aspects of the service — backup. Most appealing, it allows users to choose a schedule of incremental backups. It saves time in that only new files and files that have changed since the last backup will be updated.

If you’ve got to choose what goes online, making sure your medical records are current and safe and accessible ranks pretty high up there.

“People have taken great care in preserving information that pertains to their financial information,” says Ramesh Srinivasan, spokesman for MedicAlert (medicalert.org). But they don’t seem to include medical records in that process, he says. “People need to be more proactive than reactive. Three years ago when Katrina hit New Orleans we had a lot of our members there but one thing they didn’t lose was their medical records. In fact their information was still accessible in our database.”

Member pay $39.95 a year initially, then $25 after that for renewals. But members can provide their information pretty much any way they they can — phone, fax, online, even by mail.

Members of the MedicAlert service can carry around their information on a flash drive — E-HealthKey — that has its own software running on the device so no one else can access it. It’s also linked to a database, so if you lose the key you won’t lose the information, you’ll just have to buy a replacement key.

Now that you’ve got some of the tools that can help you in case something catastrophic happens, you should also check out a couple web sites for other checklists.

The Council for Excellence in Government is a Washington, DC-based nonprofit that came up with what they call an “RQ” quiz, which stands for Readiness Quotient (whatsyourrq.org/test.shtml). After consulting with emergency management officials on both national and local levels, they came up with a way to help people get ready, because sometimes they don’t know when they’re done.

“Once you know your basics, it does foster a culture of preparedness in that you’re focused on the continuation of operations — whether you’re a business or a resident,” said Carl Fillichio, a spokesman for the organization. “You need the basic underpinnings first.”

The Council’s Readiness Quotient emphasizes checklists, communication, practice drills and basic first aid training.

“Preparedness is a very tall order. Life is hard enough for people. They just want to know the fundamentals,” Fillichio said.

Finally, over at the National Fire Protection Association (nfpa.org), checklists also abound toward helping people feel ready for pretty much anything. The Web site allows you free downloads of ready kits and plenty of useful information for families who want some security in knowledge. It’s also a great way to involve kids in the process.

I don’t know about you, but after all this knowledge, I’m ready to spend a whole weekend getting myself in order, well before any unforeseen calamity forces my hand. Sometimes there’s nothing like fear to drive a person to do something that doesn’t come naturally!

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