Disaster Uncluttering: Aftermath

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:

  1. Air out the camera in hopes of using it to document the damage
  2. Purchase emergency clothing and supplies, all of which would be covered under our policy
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

10 Comments for “Disaster Uncluttering: Aftermath”

  1. posted by Mo on

    Before we met, my husband lived in an apartment house that burned down.

    One of the inspectors he dealt with afterwards was a real jerk, didn’t know what he was talking about, etc., etc. But my husband wanted to stay calm, figured it could be sorted out later, etc., etc. Turns out that that guy’s report was used to deny all sorts of claims that the tenants had and they got almost nothing from the building’s policy. My husband had just moved in and hadn’t yet set up his own renter’s policy. A letter detailing his disagreements with the inspector and the reasons why and his knowledge of buildings and construction and how fires start could have made a big difference.

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

    Wow, it’s so good to read this because it’s something we don’t think about often but need to be prepared for just the same. I even forwarded it to my husband so we can discuss our own plan.

  3. posted by Taylor at Household Management 101 on

    Insurance adjusters, in my opinion, based on LOTS of experience as an attorney, are trained to be complete jerks. That is unfortunate since they are dealing with their customers during especially stressful times when they esp. don’t need someone to be a jerk to them, even more so because you are paying premiums so this person will supposedly help you.

    Although it is unfortunate that you were told to just stay put until Monday, and then chastised for not mitigating the damages more, this is also very typical. Your advice on how to avoid that situation is also completely spot on.

    I don’t always think it is wise to hire an attorney right away when you have a devastating loss, because I think this puts an insurance company on guard and more suspicious. However, I do think speaking with an attorney who will read over your policy and discuss your rights and responsibilities with you can be very helpful and let you feel more confident when the adjuster tells you one thing, but the policy says something else, to tell the adjuster that they are wrong and to (politely) call them on it.

    Also, if you get the SLIGHTEST (sorry to yell, but I really mean just slight) suspicion that your insurance company is considering calling it arson or fraud, or something like that, lawyer up FAST, and immediately hire your own expert fire investigator to say what the cause of the fire was. The longer the fire scene sits, the harder it will be for an investigator to say what caused it, and you have got to have someone on your side. The insurance company will hire their own “neutral expert” who will basically come to whatever conclusion the insurance company wants, so you need a highly qualified fire scene investigator of your own. It costs thousands of dollars that you will not be able to get it back from your insurance company, but it is better than waiting years to get your money after your claim is denied and then you must file a lawsuit. (I speak from experience, as an attorney who has represented multiple clients who allegedly set fire to their homes (none of whom really did) where we had to sue the insurance company to get them to pay the policy.) By the way, when you have to hire an attorney they money is not paid back by the insurance company generally (there are exceptions but they are quite rare) so you want to get them to pay your claim and not deny it, because you will basically lose 1/3 or more to attorneys fees otherwise.

  4. posted by Suki on

    If you rent, please get renter’s insurance. You’d think that would be a no-brainer, but a co-worker’s daughter was displaced by a fire in her apartment complex. He admitted he’d told her she did not “need” renter’s insurance! His reasoning: she didn’t have that much stuff. Once she tallied up clothes, electronics, cosmetics, accessories, furniture and such, it was well over $6K.

  5. posted by John of Indiana on

    Save the camera for the claims adjuster, but buy a new one to use. If you had to “air it out”, it’s dieing.
    The chemicals and fumes present in a fire literally EAT the circuit traces right off the board in electronic stuff.
    I worked my way through school in a furniture repair shop that did a lot of insurance work, and no matter how contained the fire itself, all the electronics were always written-off and dumpstered after inventory. I acquired some stereo equipment that way that lived maybe 6 months maximum after the fact.

  6. posted by Ruth Hansell on

    Excellent advice, but I’d add this to the first item. Go over your fire or renters insurance policy when you get it,make notes of anything you don’t understand, and ask your insurance agent to explain these things to you. In person is best. Any good agent will be happy to do this with you. Take notes and make sure you’re clear.

    Trying to understand your policy, which is written in legalese and not easy to decipher at all, the day after you’ve been through a disaster, only adds a lot of stress. Get clear beforehand and if disaster happens, you’ll be much better able to cope.


  7. posted by Louise on

    In the first few hours and days after a disaster like this, many people are provided shelter and clothing for free by the Red Cross. As part of your preparation, may I gently suggest a donation to this hard-working and important charity?

    It sounds like Gary’s insurance paid for a hotel, but not all insurance does and of course not everyone has insurance. Family and friends are not always nearby. Who would you turn to in a case like that?

    Full disclosure: I am a Red Cross volunteer. My skills are not used after house fires, but know lots of folks who give their time to help out in that way. After the fire trucks drive away, they are the ones who give a teddy bear to a frightened child and hug a relieved and shaking parent. Like all good work, cash is needed to maintain the structure of the organization, so your donation is always welcomed. http://www.redcross.org

  8. posted by Sarah on

    Also, remember to check the coverage limits when purchasing the insurance in the first place. We almost bought insurance at twice the price because we have three computers in the home, then read the fine print. No matter the total loss amount, the insurance would only cover the first $2000 of electronics.

  9. posted by cerrissa on

    these posts about losing everything in a fire is really hitting close to home. there was a fire in my apartment building about a month ago. thankfully my apartment only had water damage (no fire or smoke damage) but it was still so stressful and scary. Coming home after work seeing people from the apartments where they lost everything wrapped in blankets outside and seeing water pour out of your ceiling onto your belongings makes it really easy to freak out and have no idea what to do. Then after dealing with all the cleaning up you have to do, dealing with the insurance people and landlords can be even worse. i was lucky and didn’t lose very much (most everything that got wet was washable), but it could have been way worse. i was one of those stupid people that didn’t have renter’s insurance, but i’m now changing my ways. i don’t want to have to depend on luck any more.

    i tried to make the best of the situation by using it as an opportunity to make changes and get my spring cleaning done. the uncluttering hint of ‘what would you really miss if you lost everything’ became very real. when black smoky water poured into my closet and got most everything wet and smelly what did i really want to spend time and money washing, dry cleaning, or replacing??? i realized how many things i had that i didn’t really care about.

  10. posted by Gary DuVall on

    If you had to “air it out”, it’s dieing.

    The LCD was a bit distorted at first, but that night it aired out completely. I was aware of the potential issues involved with the chemical mixture making its way into the traces, but in fact we still have it to this day and it works just fine. (One of the few things, along with the aforementioned Mag-Lite…)

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