Disaster Strikes…What to do First.

You wake up in the middle of the night to a smoke alarm going off, a loud knock at the door, or the smell of smoke… within seconds you have to get out of your home as quickly as possible. You grab your loved ones and pets and run outside. If you’re lucky, you grabbed your cell phone or wallet on the way out. Before you know what happened, you are standing outside as the Fire Department battles the flames. Everything you own is burnt, melted, or water logged. Now what?

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  • Most Fire Departments will notify the Red Cross who will send volunteers to respond, assess your situation, and provide a hotel room and money for food and clothing if appropriate. You can always call the Red Cross yourself. It’s important to note that Red Cross only assists with immediate needs, meaning within the first few days of the disaster. After that, all they can offer is referrals to other agencies.
  • Report the disaster
    • Renters: Call the landlord and let them know what happened. The sooner the landlord knows, the sooner they can file an insurance claim, make the repairs and get the space back to a livable condition.
    • Owners: Call your insurance company so they can send an adjuster out as soon as possible.
  • Take pictures of your home and the condition of your belongings before cleanup begins. This is important for insurance purposes and your own records. Write down or note in your phone the date, time and circumstances of the disaster while it is fresh in your mind.
  • A restoration or cleanup company will likely show up right after the Fire Department. While boarding up your home is an important thing to do, be careful not to agree to too much work from a company before you check them out. These companies listen to police scanners and can show up without an invitation.
  • The Fire Department will write a report and conduct an investigation (if necessary), which will become public information. Make sure you call the Fire Department to request a copy of the report for your records. This will be necessary as proof of the fire in the event you need to file an insurance claim or receive resources or services from any agencies.
  • Getting access back into your home to collect your personal belongings can be difficult. If the building is deemed uninhabitable, structurally compromised, or contains asbestos (if built before 1980), you will not be allowed back in until the Fire Department of local building official deems it safe. The utilities will likely be shut off as well. Once the authorities allow access, be aware that there is still the possibility for falling debris and the soot and water soaked items could make you sick. Do not eat anything that was affected by the disaster. Renters: Your landlord may continue to restrict access partly because they don’t want to be responsible if anyone gets hurt or injured while in the building. This can be extremely frustrating if you can’t get in to collect your salvageable belongings and you are watching insurance adjusters and repair people walk in and out of the place. Since it is mainly an issue of liability, signing something for the landlord that says you won’t sue them if you are injured while in the building collecting your personal belongings can bypass that hurdle.
  • Most importantly, take care of your physical and emotional health. It’s an extremely stressful time and lots of decisions will have to be made. Don’t hesitate to ask for help. Navigating the recovery process isn’t something we are born knowing how to do.

~Heather Korth


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