It’s obvious what to do if you are in the face of a disaster – a home fire or a flood that is threatening your dwelling. You must get out and move to someplace safe as quickly as possible. But what should you do once the fire department has left the scene, or the flood waters have rolled back? How do you recover from the emotional jolt of a disaster? How do you start the job of restoring your home to pre-disaster condition?
Fortunately, the King County chapter of the American Red Cross has prepared a goldmine of useful information about how to recover – financially and emotionally – after a fire, flood or other catastrophic event called, “After a Disaster.”
“Recovering from a disaster can be a physically and mentally draining process. When a disaster strikes, lives are suddenly turned around. Often the hardest part is knowing where to begin, where to turn and whom to contact,” it reads.
Once the smoke has cleared, the first step is to acknowledge you have experienced a major trauma. That trauma could be more severe for seniors who may have lost the home they’ve occupied for decades or who face recovery efforts made more difficult by physical limitations.
You will have to make important decisions about your future, and you want to be as clear-headed as possible.
The Red Cross offers many tips about coping with the emotional aftermath of a disaster. Here are a few to keep in mind:
Next, the Red Cross lists the practical steps you must take after the disaster, starting with the need to protect your property from further damage. It likely will take professionals to repair what fire, flood or storm has done to your dwelling.
If fire has burned a hole in your roof, try to put a temporary patch in place so rain or snow doesn’t do further damage. Secure any valuables as soon as the fire department tells you it is safe to re-enter your property to prevent any further loss due to theft.
The fire department may have caused significant damage while fighting a home fire. Firefighters may smash windows and perhaps even chop a hole in the roof to reach the flames and reduce internal temperatures and ensure there is no fire inside the walls or other hidden places.
The advice here from the Red Cross is, “Protect your home by boarding up the windows and any smashed doors. If you are renting, the owner should do this for you.”
Research disaster recovery companies online. Your insurance agent or your fire department should be able to assist in helping to secure your property.
Get your hands on a copy of the fire report prepared by your fire department. It will help to support any insurance claims.
Your first calls after a disaster should be to your insurance company and to your landlord if you are renting.
“Your insurance will be the most important single component in recovering from a fire loss,” according to the Red Cross. “Ask the insurance company what to do about the immediate needs of your home, such as covering doors, windows and other exposed areas or pumping out water.”
Remember the insurance company may cover fire or flood damage, but not damage that occurs after the disaster because you failed to do what you could to protect it.
Restoring your property to a pre-disaster condition obviously must involve your insurance company. Be sure to involve the insurance company as early as possible.
There are things you should do before filing an official claim. Don’t file as long as you are experiencing post-disaster stress. Get some estimates of what restoring your home to pre-disaster condition will cost before filing your insurance claim.
When you are ready, submit a formal statement of loss to the insurance company. Attach a copy of that fire department report. Start the process by taking an inventory of all damage caused by the disaster, including a description of each damaged item. Include the original purchase price, purchase date, damage estimate and replacement cost.
Back up your inventory with photographs or video of all the damage to the dwelling and all damage to the contents. Ideally you have already made a pre-disaster inventory of all your possessions, including purchase date, cost, serial number.
Even if you never fall victim to a disaster, you will want that in case of theft or loss.
Beyond the inventory, your statement to the insurance company should include:
Even if the disaster has passed, stay out of your home until officials tell you it is safe to re-enter. The fire department will have shut down utilities such as electric and gas. Only the utility company can restore lost service. Do not attempt to restore it yourself.
If it is nighttime, don’t enter your home without a flashlight powerful enough to illuminate damage and hazardous conditions, such as broken glass, tripping hazards or protruding nails.
Beware of structural damage. Floors and staircases may have been weakened. Appliances may be soaked with water. Trying to run them may cause further damage. Hold off on trying to put them back into service until a service person has checked them out.
Wood that has been under water can expand, causing the floor to buckle. Remove the trim and one board along the edge of the floor. When the wood dries the floor should become flat again.
The Red Cross has several useful phone numbers in case you need help or advice.
For assistance with insurance companies, call the state Office of the Insurance Commissioner at 800-562-6900.
For assistance with landlord issues, call the Tenants Union of Washington State at 206-723-0500.
Finally, the Red Cross noted that U.S. Postal Service will not deliver mail to a house that was involved in a house fire or other local disaster.
For help with postal issues call 800-275-8777, or go to: usps.com.
Gordon Williams is a volunteer with the American Red Cross Northwest Region Communications Team.
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