How to Recover After Losing a Home
The emotional toll of losing a home, or even the threat of a loss, is tremendous. Leaving your home when you have time to gather your things together is already stressful, but escaping with only the clothes on your back can be devastating.
What you can expect after a home loss
If you live in an earthquake, fire, flood, tornado or other natural disaster zones, you know losing your home is a possibility, but no matter how “prepared” you think you are, you’re not really ready when the time comes.
“Don’t underestimate the challenge of evacuation, relocation, and rebuilding after a fire. It doesn’t matter if the loss is expected or not, people who experience any kind of loss go through the same stages of adjustment, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. You may experience one or more of these stages at any time, or in any order,” said Pat Cheeks, a board-certified Psychiatric/Clinical Nurse Specialist specializing in transitioning afterlife traumas.
Making the transition from such a huge loss is difficult. In order to recover quickly and with the least amount of stress, there are some critical things you can do, said Dr. Laura Ciel, a past president of the Santa Barbara County Psychological Association, and a survivor of the flooding and mudslides in California.
“Immediately after a disaster, safety is a priority for oneself and those immediately around you,” she said.
Once you’re safe and have received the medical and physical support you need, connect with loved ones to let them know you’re okay and to ask for help.
Don’t hesitate to ask for or accept any help. This is the time to let friends and family know how they can best support you.
If your home is still standing
Expect to find whatever belongings you had that weren’t damaged by the fire to be damaged or destroyed by the firefighters who put out the blaze. Firefighters may have cut holes in walls, ceilings and the roof to find or put out fires, and water, heat, and steam from their efforts will damage more than the fire did. Even in small fires, like kitchen fires, there may be more damage than you expected.
The fire is out, but the soot, dirty water, and debris it left behind is still a health risk. Talk to the fire department who worked the fire to see when it’s safe to go inside. Ask them what you should, or should not touch. Your electrical and gas service will be off, as firefighters automatically shut services down before working a fire or other natural disaster affecting a home.
Things to do after the fire
- Get a copy of the fire report. This is a public record and is available at your local fire department or fire marshal’s office within one to two weeks after the fire – sometimes sooner.
- Contact local relief agencies. Organizations such as the Red Cross, Salvation Army, local churches, synagogues, mosques, community groups, or schools will help you for a few days or longer, for free or reduced costs after a fire. Or, find a hotel, or family member who can house you for a week or longer until you can secure new housing. Do not expect your accommodations after a natural disaster to be luxurious – especially if other families or communities have been displaced as well. The goal is to provide you shelter, food, and water, and beds where possible.
- Contact your insurance company immediately. Ask your agent what you need to do regarding immediate needs of your home. This will include things like: pumping out water and covering doors, windows, and other openings into the home to deter looters and thieves.
- Contact your credit card companies to report any cards lost in the fire, and to request replacements.
- Start saving every receipt you get so you can be reimbursed later by your insurance.
- If you haven’t done so already, your insurance agent may ask you to list everything that was damaged.
- Contact your bank. Many banks are willing to waive certain fees and penalties for those impacted by a fire or natural disaster. If you suffer a loss during tax season, the IRS will also extend your payment to them.
Handling the damage
You will be the one responsible for handling the damage. You’ll either need to do it yourself or hire someone to clean things up for you. Remember to:
- Be clear on who pays for the service. Ask your insurance agent if you or the company pays for damages before you hire anyone.
- Hire only insured, licensed, recovery firms. After a large disaster, many “crews” will move into an area offering low-cost cleanup. While many may be legitimate, many others are uninsured, non-professionals, and may loot as much as they clean. Your insurance company may not reimburse you for their services either. An insurance approved company can help you estimate damages, store what items can be salvaged, and help secure your home against more damage (wind, rain, looters, etc).
Preparing for the loss of your home
No one wants to think their home could be the victim of a natural disaster. But it can. It’s better to prepare for a disaster and never need the information than to not prepare and need it. Things to do now, before a disaster strikes:
- Prepare a “bug out bag.” This bag should contain copies or originals of documents like your insurance policy, your homeowner’s policies, prescriptions you or other family members use, and extra medication. You may not have time to search for medication around the house, or in bedrooms or bathrooms. The bag should contain enough cash to pay for a hotel room, food, gas, transportation, etc, in the event credit cards don’t work.
- Have a plan. Designate a place where family members should meet outside the home, and an alternative place if that spot is not safe. No one should go back into any damaged or flooded structure to look for family members.
- Know your “tribe” or local community and lean on them. Many people try to be stoic and show that they are “ok.” This can work for a while, but is not sustainable for a vibrant, healthy life going forward. “Often, the most beautiful gift in a tragic moment is the recognition that we are not alone in the world,” said Ciel.
For more information on what to do after a fire, see FEMA’s document on what to do after a fire.