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Preserving Your Documents
A Persuasive Speech by Michelle Karl

"This must be what a war zone looks and smells like. Except our enemy was a river run amok." This is what Hal Gershman, a Grand Forks businessman, observed in downtown Grand Forks after the flood and fire of 1997. In September, Hurricane Floyd raged up the east coast prompting President Clinton to declare ten states a major disaster area. The hurricane brought floods to many counties and a week later over 30,000 people returned to their homes to find everything destroyed. "You name it, I lost it" Eugene Wilson, a resident of Greenville, North Carolina told the Financial times on September 22. Does this situation sound familiar?

According to Knight Ridder News Service on August 28, 1999 "When you map all the different kinds of disaster that strike the United States year by year; it’s obvious: You can run, but you can’t hide. Since 1972, every state has been declared a major disaster at least three times." Unfortunately these disasters occur so quickly many people, many of us, are lucky to escape with the clothes on our backs. The thought of possessions are the least of our worries. But when the wind stops blowing, the earth stops quaking, the smoke clears and the flood waters recede, we realize too late that there are many things we could have done to protect ourselves, our lives, and the essential documents we will need to start the recovery and healing process.

I want to convince you to take these steps now, before disaster strikes. In order to do this we need to understand the magnitude of US natural disasters, the personal devastation we experience, and the importance of taking proactive steps to protect ourselves and especially our documents.

First, we need to appreciate the scope, frequency and geographic distribution of natural disasters in the U.S. No part of the US is a stranger to natural disasters. Wherever you call home, you face a risk of at least one type of large scale disaster.

Almost half of the presidential disaster declarations since 1965 were due to flooding. According to Mike Armstrong, FEMA associate director for disaster planning and risk reduction "flooding can occur almost anywhere–even in the middle of a desert–and about four out of the five federal disasters come from flooding."

These disasters leave behind a path of destruction. In their wake, they leave thousands grasping for a future that has in an instant been utterly transformed. One natural disaster can cause millions of dollars worth of damage.

These damage figures are predicted to increase in the near future. According to the September 27, 1999 issue of Time Magazine, "Meteorologists believe that we’re coming out of a 30-year period of relatively mild hurricanes. Worse, still, the increase in hurricane activity will threaten a coastline that has been experiencing a population explosion of remarkable proportions. . .as baby boomers finish sending their kids to college and start looking to buy vacation or retirement homes."

While natural disasters are best known for the ravages they visit upon forests, coast lines, highways and houses, perhaps their most enduring effects relate to the less tangible components of our legal, political and social identities: the documents and images that we use to tell the world who we are, what we have, and what we’ve done. Most insurance companies will cover up to $1000 on replacement of formal documents, however they can’t replace valuable documents such as photo albums, cookbooks, letters, journals, memorabilia, and other family history documents, More than a simple deed or driver’s license, these truly are the documents of our lives.

The statistics concerning the devastation of natural disasters are staggering, but the stories of loss and grief are heart wrenching.

After the Grand Forks flood, one flood victim reports her horror in the local Daily News Newspaper, "My son-n law and I crept back into town on Monday to see how badly our home was damaged. It was the most "eery" feeling. It felt like we were walking into a war zone. Our basement was flooded and everything in it was lost. Things like furniture, clothes, washer and dryer, and 30 years of Christmas ornaments that contained the memories of my family."

We have all seen and heard stories similar to this on local and national news channels. These stories might not have been so devastating had they prepared ahead of time and protected the essential personal, financial, and legal documents they would need to speed the recovery and healing process. Most people do not realize the importance of their documents and may not consider their photographs to be important historical documents. But Charley Kempthorne, the founder and editor of Life Story Magazine, wrote in his 1996 book For All Time: A Complete Guide to Writing Your family History that "we can learn from our family history just as we do from our national history. I hope it won’t be taken as unpatriotic of me if I suggest that family history is more important than any other history because family is the fundamental, rock-bottom unit of society." The government keeps important documents in temperature and humidity controlled glass cases in a museum, and look at how we keep our important documents. Bank statements might be stacked on the desk, letters kept in a drawer, pictures in a shoe box. All of which are places they can easily be destroyed.

In the wake of disaster the most painful knowledge is that very simple steps could have preserved these crucial records and crucial memories.

The first thing you should do is have copies of your most important documents such as your social security card, driver’s liscence, passport, and birth certificate which might be needed to prove who you are if you need to receive help. You should keep these documents in a safe-deposit box or in water-tight bags and containers.

In order to protect your personal documents you can take several steps. When you send a letter, make a photocopy of the letter and save it or back your correspondence on both a home and office computer. This way there will be two copies of your personal letters.

When developing your film, you should choose the option offered by your local film developer for free doubles or a CD and then upon receiving the doubles send them to friends and family. This way if your photo albums are destroyed someone else has another copy.

The last step is to take several of your most important pictures, recipes, letters and your financial and legal documents and secure them in a water/fireproof safe. You can either rent one at your bank and keep your possessions there or you can purchase your own. You can purchase one at your local Staples. Prices start at just $30 for a 249 cubic inch safe. If you cannot purchase a safe, you can use a water-tight bag and place your documents in it.

We all must take the steps I have discussed to preserve our documents and don’t put it off, photocopy your letters, choose the free doubles option and place your most important documents in a fire and waterproof safe. We don’t know what disaster might strike next. We never expect our house to be filled with smoke, soaked with water, or splintered by the winds - but none of the thousands of victims expected it to happen to their house either.