Just recently, I spent two days in Joplin, Missouri -- the community that was devastated by the worst tornado recorded since modern meteorological standards went into place some 60 years ago.
The level of destruction on the ground is something that you simply can't gauge on TV. I saw mile after mile of total devastation. People tend to describe the devastation in terms of the destruction of war, but I think it goes way beyond that.
When you're talking to the people, you hear these harrowing tales of how folks survived in the midst of the tornado when someone right next to them did not. Or of how people were injured while others next to them came through without a scratch.
After seeing the devastation, I can tell you that the number of dead is miraculously low. You had 8,000 homes and businesses that were destroyed completely and another 1,000 that were damaged beyond repair. Considering that the storm struck on a Sunday afternoon when many were at home, you really have to be thankful that the deaths were in the 100-person range.
Those who survived often credit preparedness as the best tool in their arsenal. The people in this part of the country know tornados and everybody has a plan to try to be safe. Below are some of the tips for disaster-proofing your life that I gleaned from talking to the people of Joplin.
Have your homeowner's insurance evaluated
I spoke to one independent pharmacist who said he and four others survived by holding onto commodes in his store's bathroom. The entire building disappeared around them as they held on. If not for the two toilets, those five people would have blown away.
Then I talked to another man as there were these big machines tearing his house down to the ground because it was uninhabitable. He and his family lived there since 1993 and raised kids there and had so many memories there. They were still in shock.
In the midst of his hurt, the second man told me to tell people to make sure the insurance on their home is up to date.
You need to have your homeowners insurance evaluated. So often, people ask me, "Shouldn't my coverage be reduced because my home is worth less now?" No, in fact, it's just the opposite. You may be underinsured because the cost to rebuild is so much greater now than the resale price of an average home.
Purchase renters insurance if you're a renter
Speaking about being underinsured, how about being uninsured? In Joplin, a big percent of people whose homes were destroyed were actually renters, not owners. Yet the Missouri Department of Insurance only reports some 400 claims have come in under renter's insurance policies because almost no one had this ultra cheap coverage.
You'll typically pay around $15/month or $150-$250/annually for renters insurance. Having it is essential. It will pay for your possessions or maybe even for temporary housing. Otherwise, you have to depend on charity or family and friends.
All over Joplin, there were flags, everything from wind-torn ribbons to those that were planted all shiny and new around the city after the tornado. The flag became a symbol for the people. The people of Joplin love their country more today than they did before the tornado. That's because people from all over America and all walks of life have poured into the city as volunteers.
I spoke to one Christian mission group that had 1,000 people on the ground. Two kids in particular who I talked to just graduated high school. The day after graduation, they were on the church bus going over to help.
Document your belongings with a video camera
On the issue of rebuilding, I heard one theme over and over again from all the insurance people who spoke to me. Document your belongings with a video camera.
Too many people had no proof, no records, nothing to prove they owned what they say they did. That’s why I've long recommended that you videotape your possessions annually by doing a walk and talk.
As you're talking and the tape is rolling, you should state the value of your belongings and name the store where you bought them if possible. Then safeguard whatever media you recorded that on in a fireproof safe at home or somewhere off-site. Finally, be sure to make copies of important financial papers like annual statements and store them with a trusted person.
Unfortunately, most of us don't do a good enough job of preparing for that rainy day in life. People who went into the tornado with no financial cushion are basically busted. Those had a cushion are wounded, but they're on their way back.
You have to be prepared for unexpected. Save money and reduce your debt. If you are not prepared, the rainy day eventually comes anyway. The question then is do you have the umbrella or not?