What to do in the first moments after losing your home

Mom on Tuesday afternoon, within 48 hours of her home’s destructive fire. No place to go and no idea what to do.

For my entire life my mom stored my stuff and kept all the family heirlooms and her own collection of antiques and junk, treasures and stuff. Now it’s gone, burned down to the last button box and coffee cup. This is probably what a lot of people in the northeast are facing right this very moment in the wake of hurricane Sandy.

Let me tell you, almost as bad as losing everything is realizing no one is stepping in to help you and no one knows what to do. Maybe this account from our first days after the fire (today is day 5) will help you or someone you know.

Step 1 from FEMA and Red Cross and other emergency sites say to contact your insurance agent. In the case of my mother’s home, an owner-built act of love and necessity, insurance wasn’t an option. Right, on to step 2.

Stuff that used to be stuff and is now different stuff. Even heavy iron pieces like these sewing machines and my piano were bent and warped beyond repair.

Step 2 says to contact the fire department to find out when it’s safe to go back into your home and see what can be salvaged. Uh, please tell me there’s a step 3, because the fire was so complete anything recognizable is bent, melted, and ruined past even the point of art. There is no home to go into.

Step 3? If you are part of a “declared disaster” such as in the northeast, call FEMA. My mom’s house was a solitary fire, so there is no governmental aid. Let me tell you what we did and what we found out, because there just aren’t resources out there for “step 3”.

We contacted the Red Cross, who usually show up at the fire, wrap you in a blanket, and whisk you off to a hotel or shelter for the night. For some reason, no one called Red Cross immediately (I guess it was our first time doing this), so we sat down with them a few days later. They gave mom some money for continued shelter, clothing, and food for a few days. The Red Cross is for immediate aid only, though. So what next for her? What next for anyone?

  1. Get yourself a toothbrush and change of socks and undies, and go have a nice long cry in the hotel or family’s spare room. It’s ok. You need this. Follow up with some chocolate and lots of water. You are probably parched and hungry and don’t even realize it yet. Mom didn’t eat for days and when she did sleep, she woke up with headaches from dehydration. Don’t do that to yourself.
  2. Contact local aid resources, like churches and charities. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a member: what is more neighborly than to lend a hand to non-parishioners? Some neighbors contacted Habitat for Humanity on our behalf. Others suggested the United Way and even the local high school building trades program. Call the principal and get the ball rolling with him. Maybe he can also get some students together to organize fund raisers.
  3. Set up or have a relative set up an account for benefit fund raising.Edit: The neighbors’ solution was a local bank. However, out-of-staters wished to donate, so we also set up a PayPal account that deposits back to the local benefit account (and you’re welcome to donate at this link about mom’s tragedy. And thank you if you do!).

    When the newspaper or TV comes by and they ask what the next steps are, be ready to tell them what people can do. We didn’t have a roof under which to store donations of goods, so money donations were the next best thing, and could go towards finding that roof over mom’s head. They’ll ask you what you need. If you or another loved one can offer a phone number or email or other contact info, do so. Frankly, people might not be generous long after the disaster. I hate to sound callous, but let them help you when they ask. If you can’t accept physical donations yet, ask a loved one to arrange a donation drop off location AND arrange to caretake it for you. And for what it’s worth, accepting help is hard, but what you’re going through is harder. If possible, have someone else—maybe that loved one handling some of these other tasks for you—accept things on your behalf. It is hard to believe you need help, hard to accept it, and hard to put it all into perspective. Someone else can accept these things and put them all out ready for you at your hotel, guest room, or site at the shelter.

  4. Get the word out via Facebook and word of mouth. This is one time you absolutely should not be bashful. At mom’s request we began asking for a loaner or cheap-to-buy travel trailer for her use mid-term on the property. If your smoldering wreckage is in an area that you can’t pull a trailer up to use, you might look for an apartment; perhaps a call to HomeAway, local AirBnB folks, or other temporary home situations might get you somewhere. But ask someone else to start the looking for you. You have enough to be going on with. Take someone up on an offer of a spare bedroom for a few days at least. You’re not imposing. Save your Red Cross and benefit money for something more permanent than a motel room.
  5. Arrange for clean-up, demolition, or repairs. A few hours after she realized there was nothing  salvageable, mom let us hire a bull-dozer and dumpster. Again, have someone else start this up for you. You probably won’t be able to hold a memorable conversation for days. Whoever arranges it for you, be up front with these guys; ask if they’ll donate time or otherwise lower the cost. In fact, be ready to ask for discounts. More to the point, prepare yourself to accept them.

    Only a few charred timbers and cast iron fixtures remain recognizable.
  6. After you have short- or mid-term housing arranged, or during the downtime of this sometimes-lengthy process (we just this afternoon found a clean and sound travel trailer to buy with a discount due to the circumstances. We used funds from the benefit account and family to buy it, and mom thinks that it’s in good enough shape to resell after her use of it), take a deep breath and know that you’re safe. You’re going to be ok.
  7. Finally, figure out if you want to rebuild (in the case of complete destruction, like ours) or simply move away. It’s ok to leave. It’s ok to stay. Take a long time alone without anyone asking you questions, “helping” you pick through the remains, or otherwise distracting you from the business you need to do: figuring out what your new reality looks like.
It feels hollow to say right away, but you will get through this. It sucks more than any other life emergency I’ve been through. But you will find something positive in the ashes.

For mom, she went from “yes, of course I’m going to rebuild” a few hours after the fire, to considering leaving the neighborhood (in which she’s lived over 30 years), to thinking about a semi-nomadic lifestyle, and finally—after one pet returned 4 days after—to thinking about rebuilding once more. Give yourself permission to grieve for your lost home and security, to fret about the unknown, and to simply not have all the answers.

The answers will come to you eventually, with space and time you must take for yourself.

Next, I’ll write a few tips on how to help people who just lost everything, while it’s fresh on my mind. After that, another few steps to get the survivors of tragedy past the few days and into the next weeks. This is, of course, unfolding as we live these moments with my mom’s situation.


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