Today we welcome back Unclutterer programmer, Gary DuVall. In the first post in this series, he discussed how to prepare yourself and your home in case of a disaster. He is writing for us based on his personal experience of losing everything he owned in a fire last June.
After the fire was declared extinguished, we were allowed back into the building to survey the damage. We walked up three flights of stairs through noxious air, flooded floors, and dripping ceilings to get to our unit. The fire started in the unit immediately above ours -— which was now just a giant hole -— and the enormous amount of water, soot, chemicals, and smoke that had made their way down had left nearly everything in our place unsalvageable. Luckily enough, our important documents, which I had been in the process of organizing days before and included our insurance policies, were still mostly untouched in their airtight container. Though we tried, there wasn’t much we could do to mitigate any further damage to our things as water was still raining everywhere through the exposed timber ceiling. We grabbed our records, as many valuables as we could find, our waterproof Mag-Lite flashlight, and a digital camera that had been partially soaked but stored away from the brunt of the damage. And then we left for the night.
The first order of business was to begin our claim with the insurance company, at which time we were told to find a hotel and wait to hear back the next day from a “floating” claims adjuster. After we found a hotel and settled in with our cats, the first things we did were:
- Air out the camera in hopes of using it to document the damage
- Purchase emergency clothing and supplies, all of which would be covered under our policy
- Re-read through our policy, organize our priorities, and consult with family members with prior experience in the industry.
Despite the day’s events, it was surprisingly easy to sleep that night.
We received the call we were expecting the next day from the “floating” insurance adjuster and were told to stay at the hotel until Monday. Staying at the hotel until Monday turned out to only made things worse, as we were asked on Monday why we didn’t do more to mitigate the damage. This particular conversation was awkward for both sides and for entirely different reasons.
It wasn’t until Tuesday, after heated discussions with our claims adjuster, that they finally assigned us an on-site adjuster to survey the damage so we could start the process of remediation. As my wife finished snapping a few hundred photos of the damage, the on-site adjuster almost immediately deemed it a “total loss” and left it to the remediation/mitigation crew we hired to clear out the unit and help us file our property claim. It would be another week of prodding, phone calls, and unanticipated project management to make sure all sides were in sync before everything was finally removed from our unit and what little could be salvaged was taken by the remediation crew.
It was strange on that last day to look down from my office window and find almost everything we owned filling the dumpster below, but it meant we could finally concentrate on the most important part of the process: rebuilding.
These are some important tips to keep in mind after an emergency:
- Your first priority is to make the claim. During this call, if you don’t have a copy of your policy, demand that one be sent overnight to the address where you’re staying. Ask about the company’s obligation to have an adjuster sent out as soon as possible, your “Loss of Use” provisions, and your responsibilities as dictated by the policy.
- Beginning with your first call, write down and keep records of every single contact you have with anyone related to the insurance company, the on-site adjuster, the mitigation process — and in the case of renters, the landlord. Include times, dates, names, numbers, and a detailed account of what transpired, even down to the mood of all sides involved. Save all e-mail contacts in a special inbox folder if you have access to a computer. If you have problems down the road on any front, you’ll have a lot of information to reference.
- If you have access to your residence afterward, pull your records and valuables first, including your hard drives if possible. While some insurance companies advise heavily against moving anything and add that you may not be able to claim these items after removal, it’s better to be safe than sorry. (In some cases, you still can so long as you inform the insurance company of what’s been removed.) If you find items that could directly help you sort through what’s left, such as a heavy flashlight and/or a camera that survived, their immediate usefulness in recording evidence of the damage (and building an inventory in the absence of one) will vastly outweigh your need to claim them.
- Read your policy again thoroughly. Compare what’s in the policy against your logbook and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Have a copy with you at all times (along with the logbook) when going back to the premises.
- Take stock financially. Your insurance may cover you immediately, but you may not see that money for days or even weeks. During that time, save every single receipt, no matter how small. You’ll be required to turn them in as part of your policy’s “Loss of Use” claim. We used zip-top sandwich bags to sort receipts by type and keep them safe at the same time.
- Be prepared to assert yourself. Being non-confrontational after losing nearly everything won’t do any good if a company that’s supposed to be on your side tells you X and your policy or contract states Y. Although the squeaky wheel generally gets the grease, remember to be polite but firm when you state your case.
- Breathe. You’ll come across irreplaceable mementos and be in contact with various people bordering on infuriating at times -— all the while bearing the heavy burden of uncertainty — but it’s essential to keep your thoughts as uncluttered as possible and concentrate on what needs to be done. Maintain your composure when working directly with the situation at hand, and find ways of coping during the downtime. We went to a local town festival for a day during some well-needed downtime, and it helped us greatly.
In Part III of this series, I’ll discuss the process of rebuilding your home from nothing.