Take a look at the news any day of the week and you’ll see stories of people affected by disasters: from entire communities dealing with the aftermath of tornadoes and large-scale flooding to families rebuilding after house fires and ruptured pipes caused by freezing weather. They all face the daunting prospect of starting over.
No matter what the cause, each of these people will deal not only with physical loss but with emotional trauma and financial impacts. Even the most prepared among us may someday deal with a catastrophe at the community or personal level that can’t be stopped, and we’ll have to decide whether to rebuild in place or start over elsewhere.
What’s non-negotiable is starting over, and what’s priceless is the mental preparation to do so, along with some resources for how to make that happen.
What to do BEFORE starting over
In the case of a disaster, the first step is, of course, to get yourself and your loved ones to safety. If you are able to do so safely, bring other items of value.
The second step is seemingly backward: prepare in advance. (That’s why you’re reading this blog, right?) Know the most likely natural disasters for your region and prepare accordingly. Those of us in earthquake country are able to mitigate danger and damage somewhat by practicing the “Stop, Cover, and Hold” drill and by taking steps to properly secure tall furniture, pictures, and breakable objects. For those in flood- and fire-prone areas, staging bug-out bags, sentimental items, and vital documents for evacuation or above high water levels will be very helpful.
Once the shaking stops or the water level drops, and it’s safe to enter your home, you can begin the process of salvaging and disposal without trying to find those necessities.
(For advice on replacing lost or destroyed essential documents, go read this article.)
Create an inventory
A key step in preparing your household for starting over is to create an inventory well before it is needed. Schedule some time to walk your home and property, room by room and building by building, and document the items you own. You can document your inventory in a simple notebook, download special home inventory forms from a website, pick up a booklet from your insurance agent, or use an app that allows you to note information with photo inserts of rooms and valuables.
No matter what format you use, be sure to include the following in your documentation:
- Date of inventory
- Name(s) of individuals doing inventory (Useful if you place an insurance claim and need statements of condition or storage of valuables.)
- What room or building you are inventorying
- Each item (with the serial number if applicable); date of purchase (if known); purchase price (if known); whether it was a gift or personal purchase; and approximate replacement value
- Photos of each room, along with individual photos of high-value items
Additionally, some people choose to create a special section in their inventory document that notes only high-value items and sentimental items. This allows for more detailed descriptions of expensive belongings such as jewelry and firearms, which may also need separate insurance riders.
During this inventory process, be sure to make side notes of sentimental items that need better storage (such as archival boxes for photos) or things that are a “must go” in a planned evacuation; stage these items with your other supplies when the river starts to rise or fire season is imminent. You can tackle that to-do list as you are able – moving photos to acid-free storage boxes or scanning them for backups can even make for a fun family night or weekend.
When doing your inventory, be methodical about it. Start at one point in your house and work in one direction, documenting everything in front of you before moving to the next item. If you’re a tech-savvy bookworm with a large library, you can download apps to your device that will let you take a picture of your books’ barcodes and they will inventory for you, based on each book’s ISBN.
This inventory is a document that you will keep in a safe place, along with other vital documents such as identification documents (Social Security cards, passports, Concealed Carry licenses, etc.), legal paperwork (wills, powers of attorney, healthcare directives, divorce decrees, parenting plans, etc.), and medical documents (vaccination records, copies of health records, treatment plans, etc.)
You may prefer to keep these papers off-site in a bank safe deposit box, company safe, or friend’s safe if you know natural disasters are prevalent in your area, but weigh this against the risk of similar problems at the off-site location.
An option for home storage is a fireproof safe stored in the safest location on your property – be sure that portable safes are well-hidden from burglars but known and accessible to family members who might have to evacuate. Ensure that large safes, such as gun safes, are bolted down to prevent the possibility of home invasions where criminals have already cased the location – they may know to bring a pallet jack for the safe.
If you made use of digital devices to do your inventory, don’t forget redundancy: print copies are always a good thing, even if you have it in triplicate via thumb drives, a disk, and your phone. Drives can be erased, disks broken, papers burned, and phones lost and stolen, so the more backups you have, the better.
All this work might sound like a hassle, but having gone through the process of trying to help inventory my family’s belongings after a house fire, I promise you it’s worth it to have your documentation done before it’s needed. If you absolutely cannot make the time to do an inventory yourself, there are certified inventory professionals you can pay to do the job for you. The downside for preparedness types is having someone aware of what you have stored up; the upside is that, should you need to file a claim, the inventory professional is an objective person who can testify to the value of your items.
Salvage and disposal
Since you now have an inventory of your possessions, along with the necessities for emergency evacuations, let’s move on to the salvage and disposal work after the disaster strikes. This may be as simple as flooding in one room from a broken pipe or a window that leaked during a typhoon; it may be as large as the destruction of several rooms or most of the house due to an apartment fire or tornado.
Let’s look at some common scenarios and how to handle them.
Smoke Damage From a Fire:
- Request permission from your fire marshal before reentering your home.
- Contact your insurance agent/company.
- Look over all of the damaged areas; take photos if possible. You may ultimately decide to hire a professional fire restorer, but knowing what the damage is allows you to start making a plan. Even if you do hire a professional, you can help minimize further damage by taking the following steps
- Open windows to ventilate the spaces and install a fan to circulate air. If it’s cold outside and your heat system is still working, keep an eye on your furnace filter. Your heating system will help remove moisture in the air, but your furnace can become clogged with soot. If the weather is warm and you have sustained significant water damage, it may be better to keep windows closed and run a dehumidifier.
- Remove brass and copper items and clean them with the appropriate cleaner within 24 hours to prevent etching.
- Cover carpets after removing soot to keep other soil from being tracked back in during cleaning; cover clean, dry items with plastic for protection.
- Check the labels of clothing and textiles – smoke smells can remain in such items unless they are properly deodorized and cleaned. If dry cleaning items, be sure to inform your dry cleaner that the item has been through a fire and may be smoke damaged so they can advise you on the appropriate treatment steps.
- After deodorizing, wash regular clothing; be aware you may have to wash the items several times. One thing my family learned after our house fire was that clothing on plastic hangers was easier to salvage; we simply snapped the melted plastic off the clothing, scrubbed off the rest, and washed multiple times. Items stored on wire hangers were permanently singed and in most cases were not salvageable.
- To get smoke odor out of the house itself, professionals may need to be involved. If the smell is not properly removed, it will return, especially during damp weather or on warm days. You may wish to have ducts cleaned and sealed and attic insulation replaced, as these spaces can retain smoke odor as well.
Water Damage from Flooding or Fire:
Some items can be salvaged after water damage, while others cannot.
- Harder surfaces such as concrete, plaster walls, and cinder block can often be cleaned and disinfected.
- Dry wet items as soon as you can. Linoleum, hardwood floors, and subflooring may be saved if you can get them dried out quickly enough. If they aren’t completely dry, both carpets and the floors underneath them can begin to mold and mildew and become irreparable. As with smoke damage, air circulation helps!
- Remove wet area rugs from wet wall-to-wall carpeting to help with drying and to prevent staining from colored rugs.
- Soft items such as drapes, bed linens, and clothing are often salvageable. Disinfect and wash, or have dry cleaned, as appropriate to the garment or item.
- If you have soft furnishings such as mattresses or upholstered furniture that you want to try to salvage, allow them to air dry in sunlight and spray thoroughly with a disinfectant.
- Hard toys and dishes: Scrub and disinfect as necessary.
Don’t bother trying to save:
- Drywall, wallboard, and batt insulation – these will hold water, so toss them to prevent mold and decay.
- Ceiling tiles: unless the damage is slight, dispose of soaked soundproofing tiles.
- Food and medicine: Anything touched by flood water is a no-go. Also toss wood cutting boards, plastic utensils, pacifiers, and baby bottle nipples.
- De-laminated furniture: Try as you might, you’ll probably never get laminate skins glued flat on particleboard or pressed board furnishings.
- Large rugs with foam backing: You might be able to save the rug by peeling off the backing, but don’t try to dry it with the backing. Wet backing will take a very long time to dry and may grow mold and mildew.
- Ductwork: The insulation on the ducts can grow mold – replace ‘em.
Mold and mildew are clearly a huge threat when water is involved with any soft possessions. Dealing with flood-damaged textiles and sodden papers requires patience, protection, disinfectant, and a lot of air.
Go here to read about health and safety hazards after a flood.
For more in-depth information on salvaging and cleaning textiles, read the NDSU article Flood-damaged Textiles: What to Salvage and How to Clean by Ann Braaten
The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration has an excellent article called Emergency Salvage of Flood Damaged Family Papers, which addresses salvaging books, documents, and photographs.
For information on replacing important documents, read this article.
Local libraries and museums may also have a conservationist who can advise you on safely salvaging books and other media. For extensive private collections, the American Institute for Conservation maintains a referral list of people you can consult with to save high-value, historic, and sentimental documents.
As you can see, the physical damage done by disasters can be overcome to a certain extent. It may take a lot of detergent and elbow grease, but in many cases, it can be done. In some cases, we may have to declare a total loss, but if we are as prepared as possible with appropriate records and resources, we can be better able to respond as necessary if the time ever comes.
So – that’s how we handle the stuff. Now, what about the people?
After a natural disaster, it is vital to recognize that even as we pick up the pieces of what’s left around us, we will be battling our way through stress, trauma, and grief. The physical damage after an earthquake may turn out to be minor, but the loss of control and feeling of fear as we watched the floor move in waves under our feet are major.
In other instances, we may lose everything we value: family and friends, beloved pets, or irreplaceable symbols of our family’s heritage and travels. On the personal level, we don’t need to go through a fire to feel we’ve lost everything; a job loss or severe illness can be devastating as well.
Whether we ourselves are dealing with bereavement or are attempting to support others in our community, it is important to know and understand the five stages of grief. Knowing these stages and how to access resources to deal with them appropriately can help us cope as we move through the steps of rebuilding. Using such resources also helps us understand how others may be coping; just remember that we each have our own unique strengths, challenges, past experiences, stressors, and coping mechanisms, which will influence how we react during and after disasters. A group of people can go through an event at the same time, even in the very same location, and still both perceive and react to it differently.
The five stages of grief are:
None of us will go through the five stages of grief at the same speed, at the same time, or in the exact same way. Some may go through them in different orders, spend more time in one stage than others, or even circle back through parts of the grief cycle more than once.
Being resilient is important to coping in times of change, and the five characteristics of resiliency are being positive, focused, flexible, proactive, and organized. Having a good support system, a plan, and a will and willingness to survive are incredible tools during and after a crisis, both within your own life and when reaching out to help others through crises.
Very often, stress can take both a physical and a mental toll on survivors. It is vital that we know how to care for ourselves physically, spiritually, and mentally as we rebuild after a disaster. For more information about coping with grief and trauma-induced stress, look up the following articles:
- After a Natural Disaster: Coping with Loss by Ronald L. Pitzer & Sharon M. Danes, University of Minnesota Extension, rev. 2010.
- Managing Grief after Disaster by Katherine Shear, Ph.D., National Center for PTSD, Professional resources for Researchers, Providers & Helpers, updated 2016.
Anyone recovering from a disaster should also be open to contacting a person in a counseling role or an ecclesiastical leader with training in counseling and post-crisis support as necessary. Oftentimes it can help us just to make initial contact and know that someone is there for us if we decide we need them, even if we never sit down for an official meeting or counseling session. Such individuals may also be able to put disaster survivors in touch with organizations that can provide financial and tangible resources, in addition to helping with mental health and morale issues.
About the author: Melonie Kennedy has dealt with the aftermath of a house fire, a divorce, and flooding from a typhoon. She knows not to ask What next? any more! Visit her online at http://www.MelonieK.com.
in regard to taking inventory – everything you indicated – PLUS – copy the bar coding of those more $$ expensive $$ items – that’s how everyone IDs merchandise these days … a digital copy along with pics of the labels & current item condition goes a long way in making a solid claim …
Thank you for posting this article on such a difficult and often neglected subject. It’s one of the things that will keep me coming back as a reader.
When you are bitten and actually need rabies shots, hospitals tend to charge $20,000 or so because they know you are scared and desperate. In times of widespread hardship, you can’t get them at any price and are condemned to one of the most horrific types of tortured death that there is. Just look up rabies on YouTube and watch animals or humans who are cursed with this misery. Even in good times, the rabies shots may be unavailable— even in the US or Canada. Then think of what happens if you are bitten as a faraway tourist in an impoverished country. Further, if a rabid raccoon runs and jumps up on your chest (easy for them to do, and it happens) and you get rabies therapy right away, bites at your neck or face can get rabies to your brain faster than therapy can do its work— then you are stuck with a preventable horrible death. I got the human rabies shot series of 3 injections from GSK = GlaxoSmithKline, produced in Marburg, Germany. No sore spots or other complications. They probably cost $1,500 or so now total, but it beats the risk of a horrible death if things trend too far toward the Stone Age and there is no possibility then of rescuing yourself.
Some topics in addition to what was covered:
Insurance companies can be treacherous when dealing with house fires. Typically, such a homeowner’s policy will have exclusions the homeowner doesn’t know about. One example is the insurance company’s mandate that any propane (and maybe butane?) supplies be stored at some distance from the house. Some companies use 30 feet as a minimum, but you won’t know what distance applies to you unless you can either find the details in your policy OR you ask your agent. Another catch is that if there’s a fire but your propane supply was not involved — if that supply was still stored inside the distance your policy mandates and the insurer’s inspector finds that out, that’s another way the insurance company can refuse to pay for your fire loss. That would suggest that if you have such a fire but you have uninvolved propane supplies stored somewhere inside that policy-declared zone, you’d best move that supply OUT of that zone ASAP before the inspector arrives.
Also, in these days of protest mobs setting fires to whatever’s in reach, home insurance companies have an exclusion for damage caused by “civil disorder.” I wish I knew of a good solution for recovery from that kind of damage.
There’s another gotcha in dealing with insurance companies. There are a few that are notorious for flat-out stiffing legitimate damage claimants — whatever the cause of damage is. A couple of decades back, Mckinsey and Co (the global consulting company) gave a presentation to many home insurance companies about how profitable it could be to stiff some fraction of legitimate policy holders. It was explained how many such claimants would drop out and give up through the various stages of protest, such as filing with the state insurance commission, filing a lawsuit, fighting the insurance company’s legal appeal, etc. “60 Minutes” did a show about this rotten process. Farmer’s Insurance even created a separate group to choose some fraction of legitimate policy holders to stiff in every possible way, and punished employees who refused to go along with such dishonesty. They stiffed a buddy of mine who had a $25,000 hail damage claim on his roof, and after three whole years of fighting them he just gave up. So find out if your home insurance company has acquired a rotten reputation for such dishonesty.
Another type of trickiness involves flood damage. We learned from the Houston flooding with hurricane Harvey that local governments have been reluctant for decades to tell generations of home buyers and home owners in some areas that a government decision was possible to save a huge dam by opening it and flooding out thousands of homeowners who had no idea they were potentially downstream and had no idea they needed federal flood insurance. My understanding is that private insurers will not insure for rising water damage from flooding.
Determining the value of books isn’t as simple as just recording the barcode. Lots of books have that barcode on the cover which may have long since disappeared. Some people have lots of books (especially on preparedness topics) that predated the barcode era. Some don’t even show up on Amazon. Here’s one way to learn if there is a global market for a given book title. Run a search with the title and author on GetTextBooks.com to see what listings they might have from a global list of book sellers along with a range of current asking prices. I’ve even found books that way from back in the 1800s.