Disaster uncluttering

Today, I want to introduce you to Unclutterer programmer Gary DuVall. This post is the first in a series that he has agreed to write for us based on his personal experience of losing everything he owned.

June 27, 2008, was like any other day. It was early afternoon, the sun was out, I was working from home, and I was on a conference call with a client. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a plume of smoke coming from what seemed to be our building’s roof.

As the plume grew larger, I began to realize the smoke wasn’t an afternoon pre-Cubs-game barbeque on the rooftop by a couple of guys playing hooky from work — this was a real fire. I ran up the stairs toward the rooftop deck to check things out. By the time I got to the door leading outside, the fire had grown large enough that I could hear it blazing, and I knew there were a half-dozen propane grills on the other side of the metal.

It was most certainly time to go.

Luckily, before the fire had spread downward through the floors, I was able to herd our two cats into the carrier, pack up my work laptop in the bag I always had close by, and make it down the smoke-filled stairway and out the building with a couple of minutes to spare. Unfortunately, in the end, we lost almost everything — but we had our pets, our safety, and an emergency line of communication.

Months before, when my wife and I first moved into the building, I insisted that vital items like our cat carrier be stored in easily accessible places in our apartment (rather than the basement storage area) in the — we thought — unlikely case of just such a situation. Only a couple of minutes of planning for what could happen made that split-second decision-making much easier when it did.

This is the crux of what I like to call “disaster uncluttering”: Being prepared for the unlikely, in case it happens. It takes but a little time and thoughtful review to prevent mind clutter from getting in the way of your safety when you have very little time to spare.

Here’s a checklist of questions to ask yourself and suggestions of what can be done to prevent both mind and physical clutter should a disaster strike you out-of-the-blue:

  1. Consider where you store things. You should have almost immediate access to the following items: Pet carrier(s), an emergency line of communication (preferably a laptop, netbook, or advanced PDA), a cell phone, your car keys, a rugged flashlight, and, if at all possible, a copy of your renters or homeowners insurance policy.
  2. Have an escape route ready, and cover your bases. Being on the third level and without a fire escape, our elevator was out and one stairwell had already become dangerously consumed by smoke. Become familiar with every pathway that leads out of your home ahead of time.
  3. If you have pets, consider putting Pet Safety Alert decals on external windows and your front door to alert neighbors and authorities you have animals (in case you aren’t at home when an emergency happens).
  4. Spend the time, and take inventory of your belongings. Even if you don’t use an automated system, a video of everything in your home can help spur your memory. Be sure to backup the video so you can still access it if your home is destroyed.
  5. Are your vital documents protected and organized? Ideally, you’ll want to store them in a fireproof safe and keep a backup copy online. Check out our series on fireproof safes for more information on this subject.
  6. Consider where you’ll temporarily live if you’re unable to inhabit your home. Will you need to stay in a hotel, or will you have access to the home of a friend or relative?

In an upcoming post, I’ll discuss what happened after the fire. In many ways, the aftermath was far worse than the fire itself.

The image above is what was left of our oak bedroom floor. In addition to soot, it took only a few hours for mold to begin to grow in the water that helped put out the fire.

41 Comments for “Disaster uncluttering”

  1. posted by Shalin on

    Thanks sooo much for this story and insights! Glad you and yours had one another.

    The inventory list and keeping a back-up of documents online are really great ideas. The most important one has gotta be the evacuation route.

    I can’t find it now, but I think there was an post on Unclutterer about a 1min, 10min, 1hour, 4hour “get out” evacuation checklist. That may be very useful too.

    (former volunteer firefighter)

  2. posted by Barbara Tako on

    Wow. Thank you for sharing the story and for the great information. I had a friend whose home was destroyed by a tornado while she and her family were away camping. I believe she would agree that the aftermath is almost worse than the event.

    Keeping some information or copies of some information (inventory, documents) off-site (at a relative’s home or in a safety deposit box) can be very helpful in case the unthinkable happens.

  3. posted by Tabitha (From Single to Married) on

    What a great post, something that I truly needed to read. My husband and I talk about things such as this when they cross our mind, but have yet to put a plan in action. Your list is just what we need to get started. And I’m glad that you and your family (pets included) escaped safely!

  4. posted by Sandy on

    This is vital information. Living in a coastal area vulnerable to hurricanes, I have my emergency kit packed and ready to go by the 1st of June and it sits in the closet nearest to the front door until the end of October. We usually have plenty of notice to evacuate but having the kit ready to go is good for my peace of mind. I don’t have to think about what to take with me.

  5. posted by jena on

    Thank you unclutterer for this post. I just added our renters and car insurance papers, plus lease to our fire box that is in the closet by the front door. Good ideas! This post is also good for earthquake emergency.

  6. posted by eva on

    as far as things to bring with you when you have to leave in a hurry, what about clothes? where I live, night-time winter temperatures can be subzero. part of me thinks that if your house is on fire you shouldn’t take the time to find your coat, hat, boots, gloves. and another part thinks it could take them a long time to respond, and you can get frostbite standing outside…

    which is right? if you’re in your pajamas holding a cat carrier and it’s 5 degrees outside, do you go looking for your coat, or do you leave immediately?

  7. posted by Splomo on

    Eva, I imagine there would be variables like type of emergency, continued threat, whether you have neighbors nearby to help… so I wouldn’t rule out a stumble into the snow in your pjs if that’s what it takes to save your life.

    People in an emergency can experience a knowing sense of calm that instinctively guides them the right way to go. Knowing where to find your keys, bag, pet carrier/leads, communication, shoes, weather gear, and other necessaries are makes it possible for you to respond appropriately in the moment of crisis.

    I love this article, and look forward to hearing more about the author’s aftermath and learning about his experience with disaster recovery. It’s a topic that’s been on my mind, as we get a lot of severe weather (albeit not cold) in my area.

  8. posted by Sandy on

    I also have a few changes of clothes and a sleeping bag in the emergency kit.

  9. posted by awurrlu on

    Excellent advice. One more thing cat owners should consider — and this saved me valuable time when there was a fire in my apartment building…

    Many animals like having a place to hide, and given the small space in my apartment, I got my cat used to using his carrier as his personal hidey-hole. This meant the carrier was always out (admittedly covered by an attractive cover) and he didn’t associate it solely with the horror of a vet trip.

    I had also attached a ring with an ID tag and his rabies tag to the door of the carrier, so I wouldn’t lose track of them in a drawer. (He was an indoor cat but wore a collar with an ID all the time.)

    One morning, as I was having breakfast, the fire alarm went off in my apartment. Although this wasn’t unusual in this building, the smell of smoke was! Because my cat already considered his carrier to be his refuge, all I needed to do was close the carrier door, grab my bag, and head out.

    Luckily, only one apartment sustained damage, and no one was hurt. My downstairs neighbor, though, had to scramble for a container for her two indoor cats, and resorted to a Rubbermaid bin which she subsequently locked in her car for the duration.

    (Regarding eva’s comment, my clothes are stored in our office closet so I don’t wake my husband when I dress in the morning. At night, I neatly put my clothes and shoes near the bed in case I need to dress in a hurry! The next morning, I remove them from the bedroom and put them in their proper places. I won’t have a coat, but I will at least have clothes and a sweater!)

  10. posted by Splomo on

    During the cold months, one could keep an extra set of outerwear vacuum sealed in the car trunk, in case of roadside emergency or rapid evacuation from the home.

    Every situation is different, so the bright idea is to give some thought to your situation and take steps that ensure your needs are met in the un. Preparing your supplies ahead of time will pay off with readiness should they be needed, and greater peace of mind if they are not.

  11. posted by Splomo on

    ^–(are met in the un)likeley event of a disaster.

  12. posted by Jesse on

    My family has been extremely lucky in that we have never had a devastating loss like this. With the exception of a flood that sent 10″ of water into the garage and basement (under the floating floor I live on)…and that only really left a layer of silt for me to shopvac up…we’ve stayed safe.

    That said, I love the idea of a video inventory. I’m going to do just that this weekend and upload it to a storage site for safe keeping!

  13. posted by Meghan on

    Gary- Thank you so much for taking the time to share insights learned as a result of your disaster.

    Have you seen anything about Wells Fargo vSafe? It’s another back up option in addition to a fireproof safe…


  14. posted by Michele on

    Thank you for this article. My husband thought I was being paranoid for wanting the cat carriers in the front hall closet, where they are a pain and take up a ton of room.

    I’m so glad your entire family, paws and all, are safe.

  15. posted by Sky on

    I live in a hurricane prone area so from June to October we stay prepared. We do have sufficient time to get what we need to take and get out and we keep up with the weather.
    A fire is the scariest! I keep my dog carrier handy for my chihuahua and I have a “grab it” fireproof box with important paperwork, etc.
    Another thing to think about is guns and bullets if there is a fire….they can be dangerous!

  16. posted by skittles on

    Last year, there was a fire in one of the garden level apartments in my apartment building & I had to evacuate myself & my cat.

    My cat doesn’t willingly go in his carrier, but he does like to play in my pop-up laundry bag, so I use that as his emergency evacuation carrier. It is tall vertically & he can’t jump out of it. He has also used them for sleeping, playing & hiding… it is easy to tease him into it. I can also tie the top shut for extra security.

    My across the hall neighbor also had a cat, but was going to leave him in the apartment because she didn’t have a way to keep him/her safe. I got another laundry bag/hamper & she put her cat in it.

    We were back in the apartment after a couple of hours because the damage was limited to the one apartment. (a stove burner with pan left on after a power outage).

    I had gotten myself out & my cat. I was happy. I had all that mattered out of the apartment.

    **regarding emergency kits in the car, I keep a duffel bag with a sleeping bag & a sweatshirt & pants (& necessary undergarments) in the trunk of the car… good for emergencies & if I decide to stay at a friend’s house on the couch. I probably should add to the duffel, but not today.

  17. posted by Sapphire on

    What a strange coincidence…I actually had a nightmare last night that the house caught on fire and we couldn’t get to the cat carriers. I think I’m going to move them from the outdoor storage shed to the hall closet right now.

  18. posted by Megan on

    Definitely in agreement with everyone about easy carrier access. I learned from my parents that when cats only see carriers when they are going to the vet, it can be hellish to get them inside!
    Keeping them out makes it easier to go to the vet, allows them to double as cat beds, and offers me a lot of comfort in the event I need to hustle my kitties out of the building in a hurry.

  19. posted by Rue on

    Thank you for your suggestion about the pet decals. I never would have thought to even look for something like that. We do have two parakeets. It would be nearly impossible to grab them and get them into their carrier in such a hurry (and they also aren’t big fans of it), but their cage is small enough we could grab it and make it outside quickly.

    I never really thought about making an evacuation plan. But there have been several apartment fires in our area recently, so it’s something I’m definitely going to consider doing today. Thanks for sharing your story – you are doing us all a favor. 🙂

  20. posted by Celeste on

    I’m intrigued by the emergency papers box Suze Orman sells (which is online for less than what she sells it for). If you take the time to put in everything you would need ahead of time, you would all set to grab and go.

    I’ve heard of people in fire-prone areas of California keeping their emergency-go items in the coat closet by the main entrance–important papers, baby books, and any other stuff. My husband keeps all of his diabetes supplies in a plastic box with a handled lid so he is grab-and-go at any time.

    I am seriously thinking about the commenter’s idea of keeping a change of clothing for all of the family stored offsite somewhere. That could make a lot of difference in coping with the aftermath if you had to flee in the night. You would need clothing and shoes to even go shopping for replacements.

    I try not to think about how difficult it would be to corral my two cats in the event of an emergency departure. I know I would not let them stand in the way of getting my small child out, though.

  21. posted by timgray on

    Insurance companies will not take a video or photos anymore. take the time to document it all and serial numbers on a spreadsheet. you just cant have enough info to convince the insurance company you really did have an expensive camera, TV or other item.

    Being prepared like the author says is your only defense.

  22. posted by Brandon on

    Great post Gary! I’m looking forward to reading more of your articles.

  23. posted by Gary DuVall on

    Being prepared like the author says is your only defense.

    I will be covering our experience with the aftermath in-depth (the insurance company, finding a new place, etc.) in part two.

  24. posted by Simpler Living on

    Thanks for sharing this story. I’m sorry that you had to go through this, but I appreciate the insight.

    My boyfriend lost almost everything he owned in a house fire last year. It was a house with four units, and all of the tenants there lost their homes. He handled the experience so much better than I think I would have, but it was hard.

    It also made me feel like I had so much. I’ve been getting rid of a lot of my things over the past year, and what happened to him made me feel differently about what I own. I felt like I had so much. Too much, really. I still do.

    I also saw that’s it’s possible to survive a fire. It wouldn’t be good, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

  25. posted by Leonie on

    Why not have important documents that you don’t immediately need in a safe deposit box at the local safe?

    Our passports, extra cash, and social security cards are in a fireproof safe in the house.

    But other documents like birth certificates, home ownership papers, valuables etc are in the safe deposit box at our local bank which is literally a 3 minute drive from the house.

    Granted, you can’t access it on Sunday, or after hours, but it will be there when you need it.

    All other documents like insurance – we simply keep the policy numbers on our PDA and the numbers we need to call.

    Thankfully, we have not had a situation like Gary’s. Glad your family made it out safe.

  26. posted by Loretta on

    Thank goodness Gary and his whole family are safe! And thanks to all of you for the good ideas.

    I bought 2 doses of tranquilizer for each cat and keep it in the emergency box, in case we have to run away from a hurricane. My cats are among those who think “carrier = vet,” and it would be cruel to subject them to a long car trip in that state of mind! It’s probably about time to replace it, but it was surprisingly inexpensive.

    I also store at least three days’ worth of the cats’ dry food in the emergency box (rotating stock, obviously, so it doesn’t get stale). One of them can be fed from any grocery store, but the other needs a prescription diet. I put his food in one zipper freezer bag and put that inside another. I figure three days would be enough time to get hold of our vet, or one at a refuge location, and restock if we were going to be away longer than that.

  27. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Leonie —

    1. You need a key and state-issued identification to get access to a safe deposit box. In an emergency, there are no guarantees that you will have time to grab the key to this safe deposit box and your wallet. In an emergency, there are no guarantees.

    2. Safe deposit boxes are only open on set schedules. Your home could burn down on a Saturday and you wouldn’t have access to your things until the following Monday.

  28. posted by Another Deb on

    A friend had to evacuate her home during a midnight fire in only her nightclothes. She had the blankets off of the bed to cover up with and that’s it! I tend to have my next-day’s clothes laid out anyway and this is another reason to do so. I also keep my glasses and purse next to me on the night stand.

    Since I am paranoid about having a wardrobe malfunction as a junior high teacher, I also keep a spare set of clothes in my car. Again, this could end up being helpful in an evacuation situation, although the cars are in the attached garage and may not be available.

    My flashdrive with backup information stays clipped to my purse. It’s got credential paperwork scanned in, and many photos and work documents. Let’s hope the purse never gets lost!

    I love the cat carrier/hamper hint. In one non-emergency situation I had to zip my cat into a duffel to transport her and she was NOT amused.

  29. posted by Leonie on

    Good point. But like I explained – the things in the safe deposit box (my papers) are papers that I don’t need immediate access to – for example, I have two legal copies of documents such as the will, and other family papers. The other copy is in the fireproof safe in the house. The key to the safe deposit is on my key chain. I have my identification documents in my purse which sits (hidden) but by the front door. Our family has had fire drills so every member of the family knows what route to take in the event of a fire.

    But as you pointed out there are no guarantees in a fire. Therefore, cutting down on any potential future amount of stress in an already stressful situation would be a good move. After all, even with all the preparation, perhaps one would be lucky to even run out of the front door with family members.

    In which case, where you put your important papers would be a moot point. If the house burned down on Saturday, and you had papers in the house that burned with it, you wouldn’t have access to it on Monday either.

  30. posted by Taylor at Household Management 101 on

    I am so sorry for your loss, but glad that you and your pets are safe. I strongly second the suggestion to create a household inventory.

    It is not something we want to think about, but as we can all see from your post, disasters like this can happen to anyone at any time.

    I am also an attorney, who deals with insurance claims all the time (and dealing with insurance adjusters)and having a household inventory really helps simplify the process of getting your insurance claim through the bureaucracy during an already difficult time.

    It can also get you more money paid on your claim because of the good documentation.

    I have written several articles about this topic, because I think it is that important. First, I created an article about why you should create a household inventory (click on my name for the link).

    I also wrote one on how to create an inventory quickly and easily.


    I even wrote a post about a free household inventory software program provided by the Insurance Information Institute (note I am not affiliated with them, I just thought it might help people).


    Check them out if you are interested.

  31. posted by lina on

    My flashdrive with backup information stays clipped to my purse. It’s got credential paperwork scanned in, and many photos and work documents. Let’s hope the purse never gets lost!

    That is a really TERRIBLE IDEA. Please don’t keep your sensitive information anywhere near your purse. Do you seriously think it could not be lost or stolen? It’s bad enough that a thief could get your keys, ID, cards, you want them to know everything?

  32. posted by Gina on

    What a great post.

    I am currently converting all of my files over to an external hard drive and then moving from PC to Mac.

    I have recently heard of a company, DocuBank, that provides immediate access to health care info, living wills, orgon donor information, etc. Has anyone utilized this service?

  33. posted by CJ on

    @Lina, it can be a great idea if you encrypt everything. Just don’t forget the password!

    There’s a very simple program called dscrypt, or a more advanced one called TrueCrypt.

    I’d also highly recommend backups of your laptop/pc – I have an external drive that I clone my harddrive to periodically, and I’ve got the same setup for my parents. Each month we do a backup, then swap backup drives. If I have a fire or robbery at my house, I may lose their backup, but they will still have their PC and my backup at their house (and vice versa).

  34. posted by Counting My Pennies » Weekly Link Roundup on

    […] Disaster Uncluttering […]

  35. posted by gypsy packer on

    This is where the old white-trash custom of “junk in the trunk” comes in handy. Keeping a winter outfit for each person and some coats and blankets in a plastic tote during the cold months is an excellent idea, as well as that flash drive, stored in a condensation-proof container. Don’t keep any other records or valuables in your car if it is a theft-prone variety.

  36. posted by Rebecca on

    First of all, I’m delighted to read another great post on Unclutterer, and from a new author too!
    Second of all, and I’m really surprised this hasn’t come up on any of the discussions about the fire-proof boxes and safes, there are risks to the misuse of these items. If the safes are left in the fire, it’s important to be cautious about reopening these items. The three things needed for a fire are heat, fuel, and oxygen. The basic principle of these items are to remove the oxygen from the equation. If you are too eager to retrieve your valuable papers, you’ll open the item before all the heat is gone and provide the oxygen to the equation (your valuable papers are the fuel). My father was a volunteer fire fighter for decades and he cautioned against the complacency of homeowners to think fire-proof boxes are fail safe. I just wanted to mention that there are still inherent risks to these devices, while there are some very important value-added reasons to keep these boxes, just pay attention closely to the operating instructions when you first purchase the box. It can save you from feeling the second disaster – losing it all anyway!

  37. posted by Put Together an Emergency Pet Kit « Simple Savvy on

    […] past month, Unclutterer featured a three-part series on picking up the pieces after a disaster — in this case, a fire.  The author, […]

  38. posted by Wendy Blackwell on

    We have designated a remote contact person so if there is a disaster while one of us is away from home, neither of us has to panic about finding the other, even if services to our area are knocked out.

  39. posted by Beach on

    What an interesting post, something that I truly needed to read. My wife and I talk about things such as this when they cross our mind, but have yet to put a plan in action. Your list is just what we need to get started. And I’m glad that you and your family (pets included) escaped safely!

  40. posted by Cathy on

    I’m a registered vet tech, and about 18 months ago I was working at an emergency clinic when a huge wildfire swept through the area and hundreds of residents had to evacuate. We acted as a refuge for a lot of pets while their owners waited to find out if their homes had survived.

    One very important thing I learned is that in case of an emergency evacuation, pillowcases make EXCELLENT cat carriers. Pop kitty in, tie the top, and you’re good to go. It’s not ideal of course, but there’s no WAY I could handle both of my cats, their carriers, and my dog if we had to evacuate. Two knotted pillowcases and my dog would be a lot easier.

    Also, I highly recommend pet owners find out where the nearest emergency clinic is so that if they have to go somewhere in a hurry that isn’t pet friendly, they know where to take their furry family members. So many fire victims approached us after the disaster and thanked us for the peace of mind we gave them knowing their best friends were safe.

  41. posted by Chris on

    Glad everyone’s okay. Very helpful article worth sharing.

Comments are closed.