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Image: Catherine Hooper in classroom
Emily Wilson
Catherine Hooper, president of the disaster-preparedness company Black Umbrella, speaks to an enthusiastic Brownie troop in New York City.
By
TODAY contributor
updated 4/18/2011 2:35:01 PM ET 2011-04-18T18:35:01

Disasters can take many forms. Some are deeply personal: the death of a spouse, an unexpected accident, a sudden and drastic financial reversal. Other disasters, like Hurricane Katrina and the recent tsunami and earthquake in Japan, affect thousands of people all at once.

Catherine Hooper knows how hard it can be for people to prepare adequately for catastrophes — and to overcome them when they strike. Hooper, 38, is engaged to Andrew Madoff, Bernie Madoff's son. Together with his older brother, Andrew Madoff turned his father in for masterminding the largest pyramid scheme in history. That stunning revelation in December 2008 led to the unraveling of many people's lives and livelihoods. In December of last year, Andrew's brother, Mark Madoff, committed suicide in his New York apartment.

The magnitude of these tragedies has not been lost on Hooper. If anything, it intensified the deep-seated interest she's had in disaster preparedness ever since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Last year, she took that interest to a new level by founding Black Umbrella, a business that helps families hunker down and put together practical emergency plans.

Why might a family need help with this sort of thing? For starters, planning ahead for a disaster can be a wee bit unpleasant and stress-inducing. Denial can run deep, and so can procrastination — even among family members who really want to put plans in place. That said, it's possible to accomplish a whole lot in two to three hours of focused planning.

"This is all stuff you can do on your own — you don't need to hire me," Hooper said. "There are so many great resources out there."

Read on for some of Hooper's tips on how to get ready for anything, be it a natural disaster, a death in the family or an unpleasant financial wallop.

Q: What kinds of people are drawn to Black Umbrella?
A:
Our clients have segmented themselves into two pretty clear groups. For the most part, we hear from families with young children. These are the same people who are making a will and buying life insurance. They've built some assets, they've built a family, and now they want to protect that and have some continuity for what they've built.

The second kind of client that we deal with quite often are older couples, empty-nesters. ... What they're really looking at it is how can they pass onto their children all the information about their important documents so the children would know how to take over, wrap up and know where everything is. It's a conversation that's a little bit difficult for parents to have with their kids, so when they have a professional come in and basically bring kids into the loop, it's a little less emotional.

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Q: Whether people get outside help or devise plans on their own, what steps should they take when creating emergency plans for their families?
A:
If you are doing this on your own, start with your city's or your municipality's office of emergency management. These offices have all sorts of great resources and can get you thinking about what you need to know and do locally. ...

Then, a first step is to make the family's "go cards." This basically involves assembling your crisis management team and identifying the people who are most critical to you in an emergency. We suggest 22 names. People often want to write down their 22 closest family members and best friends, but instead think about the names and phone numbers of people like your pharmacist, your doorman, your insurance broker. Pull together that list of critical people, and ... you can laminate wallet cards for every member of your family. These cards don't have to be aluminum and waterproof and laser-engraved like the ones we make for people.

Step two is a reunification plan: Creating a network of safe places where your family members could meet up and be reunited in the event of a natural disaster or other emergency. Safe place number one — or "home base" — for most people is their home. Or your office or workplace may be the place you identify as home base. Then after that, identify a place where you can meet in your neighborhood. And then you choose a third place far out from where you are. ... A lot of people pick a 24-hour restaurant. A church is a great option if you belong to a church. Sometimes it's a relative's or a friend's house out in the country. ...

The next step is coming up with a communication plan. Who is the family marshal — the one whose orders people follow in a crisis? If that person gets stuck down in the subway, who next becomes family marshal? ...

Step four is critical document storage and organization. We scan, store and digitize people's critical documents, wills, trusts, powers of attorney, insurance documents. We put them on a special, secure thumb drive called an IronKey. Families get those IronKeys as well as paper copies of everything to go in their "go bags" in a waterproof pouch. And then you can have a third backup for those documents in a digital cloud where you store information.

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Step five is to build your three-day "go bag" of tools, supplies, food and water you'd really need in an emergency. ...

And there's a sixth step: Once you've created a plan like this, enjoy your life. This is now something you can stop worrying about. You can just enjoy life and enjoy the great gifts that we've been given.

Q: Of all the steps you just shared, which do you think is the most important?
A:
In an emergency, it's all about reunification. If I have my kids with me — if we're together — we will find water, we will find shelter, we will get to those resources somehow. But if I don't have my kids, it doesn't matter to me if I have food, water, shelter or any of those other things. ...

Research on community resilience has shown that having a plan in place greatly increases your survival odds in the event of a disaster. It doesn't matter if you execute that specific plan or not. Isn't that amazing? Planning helps people push through denial and push through that process of deliberation ... and get to that point where they're ready to take action. In a disaster, you have to decide to act.

Q: How has being close to the Bernie Madoff situation affected your view of preparing for disasters?
A:
I know that for anyone who is looking at my company or me as an individual, it's something people have curiosity about. I hope that one day I'm able to talk about that more fully. For now, I can just say it's important to recognize that disaster comes in all shapes and sizes. There really is something for everybody. ... I certainly didn't expect this. I didn't see it coming at all. But I'll tell you this: Having a plan in place can save your sanity at a very difficult emotional time.

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When [Madoff's] firm imploded and everybody left, they had everything at the office. None of them were expecting to lose their jobs that day, or to leave the office and potentially never come back, but they had these physical pieces that they needed to recover. ... Knowing where all of your financial records are and having all of those backed up and accessible to you — or to your spouse if something were to happen to you — it's just so important.

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