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A car lies upside down in the wreckage of a home severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina in Gulfport, Mississippi.
The aftermath of storm surge from Hurricane Katrina Sept. 16, 2005, in Gulfport, Mississippi.

8 financial tips for weathering disaster

Take it from a man who lost it all in Hurricane Katrina: Preparation pays off. Wells Fargo offers tips for those impacted by a natural disaster.

September 11, 2019

Here are a few hurricane tips some have learned the hard way: Take pictures of your patio. Update your online banking profile. Save your birth certificate on a thumb drive.

Jason Fletcher, a senior chief petty officer in the U.S. Navy, lost everything when Hurricane Katrina swamped Gulfport, Mississippi, in 2005. So when Hurricane Irma bore down on the Florida Keys, where Fletcher’s family had since relocated, he was determined to be better prepared.

He snapped hundreds of interior and exterior photos of his house and possessions, gathered important financial documents, removed the floating docks, and secured what he could at home — and in a storage unit nearby — to better protect his belongings from floodwaters and wind.

Photo of Jason Fletcher
Jason Fletcher
“The lessons learned from Katrina helped us prepare for Irma and prevent major loss.”

— Jason Fletcher

“I focused on the outside and Rachel on everything inside,” said Fletcher, referring to his wife. “I had even brought down a generator, bottled water, canned foods, propane for the grill, tarps, and other things I knew from Katrina that we’d need. The plan was to leave these secured in the house so we could travel lighter on the way back after the storm.”

In mapping out his family’s route to safety, Fletcher planned for what he figured would be an even longer drive from Florida to Mississippi because of all the evacuees on the road. He stockpiled extra food, bottled water, gas, cash, and an emergency credit card. Normally a 16-hour trip, the drive on back roads took nearly 28 hours.

Hurricane Irma came ashore Sept. 10, 2017, as a Category 4 storm that ripped off roofs, flooded coastal cities, and knocked out power to more than 6.8 million people. By then Fletcher and his wife — as well as their son, Ayden, their three dogs, three cats, and four birds — were out of harm’s way. They wouldn’t return to their house in Big Coppitt Key, Florida, until a week later.

“The preparation paid off,” Fletcher said of the Hurricane Irma precautions. “The lessons learned from Katrina helped us prepare for Irma and prevent major loss.”

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which designates each September as National Preparedness Month, more than half of Americans aren’t ready for natural disasters. In fact, only 39% of respondents in a 2015 FEMA survey said they had developed an emergency plan and discussed it with loved ones.

That includes being financially prepared, which goes beyond having enough cash on hand, said Rullah Price, community outreach director for Wells Fargo Home Lending.

“The first priority is always safety for you and your family. Whether it’s a wildfire, flood, tornado, earthquake, hurricane, or other disaster, you have little time in the moment as you’re responding to also think about financial details like paying mortgage and other bills,” Price said. “That’s why being prepared is so critical, and why it’s so important to plan before a disaster is at your doorstep.”

Financial tips for natural disasters

Price said following these tips (PDF) can help improve readiness and recovery:

  • Save documents on a secure thumb drive. This includes birth and marriage certificates, wills, deeds, tax returns, insurance policies, and stock and bond certificates.
     
  • Take pictures of your property. Keep visual records of your vehicles and home, including landscaping. Note any home improvements that may increase property value.
     
  • Consider setting up online banking and bill pay. Manage accounts away from home. Keep your online profile current so your bank or lender can contact you.
     
  • Have cash or an emergency fund that is easily accessible. A disaster can shut down local ATMs and banks for days or even weeks.
     
  • If displaced, update your temporary address. Wells Fargo customers can use the recurring payments feature on Control TowerSM to find merchants to update.
     
  • Keep track of credit or debit cards during displacement. Notify financial institutions of your new location. Wells Fargo cardholders can use Control Tower to temporarily turn off cards lost during evacuation.
     
  • Wait until you’re told it’s safe to return to your property. Once it’s safe to assess any damage, call your lender and insurance company to file any needed claims as soon as possible.
     
  • Contact your financial institution to better understand what options are available. Wells Fargo customers can call 800-219-9739 or visit wellsfargo.com/recovery to learn more.

Don’t be afraid to share your financial struggles or to ask for help, Price said. “We believe communication is critical during times of disaster. When we are aware of a pending disaster and have the ability, we may begin communicating with customers who might be impacted using email, text, ATMs, and social media so customers know where to call and go for information and assistance.”

‘A life-changing experience’

Fletcher bought his home at Big Coppitt Key in 2014 while stationed nearby. His wife, an X-ray technician at the local hospital, and family have remained while his military duties have stationed him elsewhere over the years. (He’s currently stationed in Jacksonville and plans to rejoin his family permanently in the Keys in a few years, when he retires.)

Photo of Jason Fletcher's house in Big Coppitt Key after Hurricane Irma with roof and other damage
Hurricane Irma left Jason Fletcher’s home in Big Coppitt Key, Florida, battered but still standing. The family recently celebrated the completion of repairs.

When Irma hit, Fletcher knew from Navy patrols that his home in Big Coppitt Key — a three-bedroom and two-bathroom home on stilts — had withstood Irma and was still standing.

But it was still a shock when he walked inside on Sept. 17, 2017.

“The fiber insulation had been blown around all the windows and doors, which had leaked, and while the ceiling and floors were still there and intact, there was a big gap in the roof and water damage to the drywall,” he said.

During their visit to a Wells Fargo Mobile Response Unit in Marathon, Florida, the Fletchers were able to have their checks endorsed and learned about next steps as they knew their repairs would be long term.

The Wells Fargo Home Lending Disaster Assistance team was able to reduce the Fletchers’ mortgage payments during the repair process and most recently approve them for a loan modification as the repairs had been completed. The Fletchers are currently making their trial payments and ready to get back on track.

Fletcher said he and his wife recently had a get-together with friends to celebrate the completion of repairs.

“Never lose hope, communicate often with your mortgage company during the recovery process, and know it never hurts to ask a question or ask for help. This was something I learned that really opened my eyes,” Fletcher said.

“Until we opened up about the struggles we were having while starting the recovery process, our finances were a constant worry,” he continued. “But once I spoke to the Wells Fargo Disaster Assistance team and they heard our situation, not only were they willing and ready to help but they genuinely cared for us. They’ve done everything they could since to see that we were taken care of, continually reach out to check up on us, and ask if there’s anything they can do to help.

“It’s been a life-changing experience.”

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