On Jan. 17, 1994, Southern Californians were rudely awakened at 4:30 a.m. by the powerful Northridge earthquake (magnitude 6.7 on the Richter scale). Since I live only a few miles from Northridge, my home sustained moderate damage. (There’s nothing like hearing your piano tip over and hit the floor.)
To make matters worse, thieves had stolen all four of my car’s tires during the night, and I was literally stranded. With no electricity, water, gas or transportation for five days (tire stores took days to reopen), I had to rely on the kindness of friends, who picked me up and allowed me to stay in their home until I could get a new set of wheels.
One of the other major problems I faced was a lack of emergency cash. I had only $20 in my wallet, banks were closed for days and ATMs were down. Many stores couldn’t process credit card transactions due to phone outages or blackouts. I learned a valuable lesson: Always carry enough cash to cover essential needs for a five-day period.
This recommendation is echoed by the Financial Planning Association, a trade group that represents accountants, financial planners, stockbrokers, bankers and other money managers. Many ATMs and banks were shut down after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the FPA reminds us, and hurricane and tornado victims often experience similar problems.
FPA leaders offer two additional suggestions for disaster preparedness:
- Consider keeping some emergency cash in an out-of-state money market mutual fund that wouldn’t be affected by a local disaster.
- Keep your credit card balances low or paid off. You could be out of work for a while, and a credit card with a healthy credit cushion could be invaluable to see you through. Better yet, save enough cash in a money market to cover three to six months’ worth of minimal living expenses. This will help you avoid running up a credit card balance.
This multilevel parking structure was built at California State University, Northridge, in 1991 and collapsed during the earthquake. Had the quake occurred during school hours, hundreds of students could have been killed, and thousands of cars would have been damaged. The outer wall buckled when reinforced concrete columns fractured. Photo by Mehmet Celebi/U.S. Geological Survey.