Finally, Important Lessons Learned from the Fire

At some point shortly after the fire, I realized we were learning all sorts of invaluable little life lessons that I only wish I had known before hand. Whether you live in hurricane territory, or tornado alley, or in the land of earthquakes or blizzards, both mother nature and man have the ability to throw major curve balls in your path – and while I do not suggest living in fear, living prepared seems to make sense to me. And we were prepared to some extent, for a hurricane, but not for much else.

It has taken me months to find the piece of paper I wrote these on, and other lessons have emerged since the original draft, but I hope these ideas may help everyone who reads them to prepare for whatever life may dish out. And I hope no one ever needs them.

1. If lightning strikes the building you are in, call the fire department immediately! (Especially if you hear glass break or suffer any kind of damage.) Seriously, it is better to be wrong and “waste” their time on a false alarm than wait until your entire attic (where you can’t see) is on fire.

2. Back up all your digital life, preferably off-site or on an external hard-drive that you keep at the office or a friends. And don’t just back-up your photos, include your address book, important papers, etc. You can bring it home once a month to update and then put it in the trunk of your car overnight. Seriously a back-up is no good sitting on top of your hard-drive.

3. Buy and use a fire-proof safe. Passports, immunization cards, birth certificates, marriage certificate, car titles, the deed to your house, copy of home/renters, auto, health and life insurance info – policy declarations pages, account numbers, and phone numbers, blank checks, account and phone numbers too for your utilities, mortgage company, etc., wills, health care directives, that external hard-drive back-up (if it’s not off-site), etc. If you have a small safe that won’t hold all that, get a new one! And know where the keys are (note, they shouldn’t be together!)

4. Don’t skimp on your home owners/renters insurance – and don’t think you don’t need renters! You want replacement cost insurance with adequate coverage limits – be generous to yourself. Your home owners has several parts (a) dwelling – which is the physical structure, (b) contents, as in all your stuff, which should be valued at 75-80% of the dwelling coverage, and (c) loss of use, which is what pays for your living expenses while your home is being repaired. You should also know the name of your company and have their claims number programmed into your phone.

5. Make and keep up-to-date a detailed inventory of your home. The easiest way to do this is take photos or video room by room in your home. Open the drawers and closets and cabinets. Don’t forget the attic or seasonal cupboards (like your Christmas stuff). Keep these handy but off site, or email them to yourself. And don’t forget to update them after major purchases and big holidays like Christmas. Trying to reconstruct and estimate, from memory, the contents of every room in your house, and every closet, is excruciating.

6. Keep your jewelry in one location, as much as is possible.

7. If you have lots of music and movies (actual CDs and DVDs) you can back them up by ripping them. Once you’ve done that, figure out a way to back them up off-site. (Things you purchase through iTunes you can recover – I think). Also back-up your photos and videos from your iPhone on that external hard-drive.

8. Scan old photos and important letters/documents, then back ’em up, and keep the back-up off-site.

9. Memorize your ten most frequently called phone numbers. You never know when you’ll be using a strangers cell phone in an emergency and you won’t have your contacts in the palm of your hand. I know this sounds old-fashioned, but seriously if you can’t call your best friend, your mom, and your boss without your address book, that’s not good.

10. Otterbox your iPhone – you also never know when you’re going to be standing in a driving rain calling 911.

11. After a catastrophic event (fire, flood, etc.) do not deal with anyone on-site except for the fire department, police department, and your insurance company representatives. The fire restoration vultures (or their equivalent) listen to fire/police scanners and show up with their laminated business cards – they are like ambulance chasers or tow trucks sitting on the side of the highway. And when people cold call you, and they will, don’t say much if anything at all, collect their contact information and deal with them if and when you are ready. Also, appoint a friend to help with this (everyone wants to know what they can do to help – let someone you know and trust be the message collector). And remember, you don’t have to answer every call that comes in – you won’t possibly have enough hours in the day or sanity to repeat the story for every person that calls.

12. If you have a mail slot, tape it obviously shut and put a hold order on your mail at the post office. Give yourself at least 3-4 weeks on the hold. You can stop by and pick it up regularly, then once you know where you will be for a while do a temporary forward order to your temporary-permanent address. This won’t trigger a change of address notice to everyone until you are ready to do so with a permanent forward order.

13. Nothing plastic is salvageable in a fire, this includes things stored in those big plastic bins (which lots of our stuff was stored in for hurricanes/flooding). Don’t let anyone pressure you to take items, especially baby/child related items (clothes, toys). Keep what is sentimental, though not to play with.

14. Blog, group email, or appoint someone to be your “spokesperson” (both for disseminating information and receiving stuff on your behalf) – save your emotional energy for when and what you need it for.

15. Secure your property. Even though there was noting left of our house, there was a lot sticks and bricks left behind. And people are cruel and desperate. We should have boarded up every door and every window in the days after the fire, once all the recovery and insurance work was done. You can also ask your insurance company to secure the perimeter with a fence (some will, ours didn’t). We had kids throwing rocks, thieves, and homeless people over the months before the house was torn down. As much as you want to say who the hell cares, if anyone gets hurt they can still sue you – its your property after all. Oh, and don’t forget to post “private property” and “no trespassing” signs. In some places, police need these notices to be clearly visible in order to arrest people up to no good in your burnt out house (no, I’m not joking!).

16. Have a list (and keep it in your email) of all your bills, including account numbers, and your debts (student loans, car payments, mortgage, etc.) It may be days before your mail catches up to you, and you may need to be scheduling payments, etc. in the interim. Having one centrally located list is super helpful. (Or maybe you already have all your bills and statements emailed to you – which is another way to accomplish the same thing.)

4 thoughts on “Finally, Important Lessons Learned from the Fire

  1. maryann June 7, 2012 / 6:55 pm

    Really appreciated your well-organized, sensible, detailed advice. Some of it , we should all already be aware of – but of course we don’t act on. A wake up call. However, as a person of a previous generation, I think I’ll find other ways to store/duplicate/protect important information. And regarding #10 – what the heck is Otterbox?

    • Eileen June 7, 2012 / 10:17 pm

      Hi Maryann, an otterbox is a box that you put your iPhone in to protect it from the elements, small children, and other perils. There are various types – some theoretically you could drive your car over and your phone would still be in tact. I’m sure you’d know one if you saw it, because I’m sure you’ve seen them before and just didn’t know it 🙂

  2. Common Loon June 7, 2012 / 11:40 pm

    Good stuff, Eileen. Sorry it was learned from the school of hard knocks! I appreciate your efforts to save us some headaches!

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