How to recover from a house fire.
January 8, 2013 6:57 AM   Subscribe

My in-laws' house burned down last night. What do they need right now?

According to news reports, it's a "total loss," but the news reports also have lot of other incorrect details. My husband was there last night and said it looks like it might not be that bad, but still, I saw video and it was one of those giant orange blazes. Let's assume that they will be unable to access any of their possessions in the short term.

Several years ago my husband actually lost everything in an apartment fire and he works in property/casualty insurance so we are not completely overwhelmed. When his apartment burned down, my husband remembers it as an onslaught of tiny details that needed to be taken care of, like rerouting his mail, getting internet access at his temporary place, getting a phone charger, etc. What other little items or tasks do they need to remember?

We know from experience that they may need our money and our time, but probably not all of our old stuff. My husband is out now taking them to rent a car and get new cell phones, and I will be printing any pictures of the interior of their house to help them itemize their possessions. What other tasks can we do for them now?

Some possibly relevant details:
* The fire started in the garage, so I assume both of their cars are lost.
* They have at least some of their credit cards.
* They have 4 indoor/outdoor cats, and 2 were outside at the time of the fire. They haven't been seen, as far as I know. It is winter and snowy here.
* They stayed at a neighbor's house last night, and will probably be in a nearby extended stay hotel for a while, depending on what their insurance company says. We do not have room for them here. It's a two bedroom apartment with two adults, one toddler, and a newborn on his way in the next month.

Also, the question is mainly about the very short term, but feel free to offer any advice about the long term. Thank you.
posted by that's how you get ants to Home & Garden (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
However you can, try to make sure they are fed, and fed decently (i.e. not living on pizza and Chinese.) Stock their fridge, buy them a microwave for the extended-stay hotel if they don't have one, whatever, but try to take the load of cooking off their back as best you can. You don't have to become their personal chef, but in times of stress, people tend to start eating like shit, which leads to all sorts of mental and physical stresses on top of the ones they're already enduring.
posted by griphus at 7:06 AM on January 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

I'm so sorry about this! How awful!

Call the phone company and explain the situation. You can have the number forwarded to a cell phone, or to another landline, or even to a voice mailbox. Also, this cuts off the phone service to the house.

Call the other utilities, electric, gas, cable tv, water, etc.

Call the Red Cross, they may come across with a gift card so your folks can get some clothing, household items, etc.

Call the animal shelter and let them know that you're looking for your cats. Were they microchipped? Do they have id collars?

See if you can start getting important papers together, house deed, mortgage info, marriage licence, pink slips for the cars, passports, birth certificates, anything that's important.

Make a note, in the future scan everything and upload it into the cloud.

Call the bank and let them know there was a fire, you never know if people are going through the house looking for financial stuff.

Rather than an extended stay hotels, call around to local apartment complexes to see if they have executive units. These are set up for folks in transition. For sure, discuss with an insurance agent, they may have a deal with Marriott Residence Inn or something, but executive units are nicer and more roomy (in most cases.)

Hang in there. It's only stuff.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:07 AM on January 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

Give them a laptop and a 3g card to get some control back into their lives.
posted by devnull at 7:10 AM on January 8, 2013

Make checklists. They will likely be at a complete loss for where to go and what to do even when they don't have much TO do (weekends, etc.). They need to be told what to do.

List 1: Things that need to be done ONCE (find the XYZ, tell the bank there was a fire, etc.)

List 2: Things that need to be checked up on continuously (insurance company, etc.)

List 3: Handy numbers: insurance, people who will make meals, people who will let you stay over, etc.

List 4: Things you can do to fill time and not go crazy that may help you feel more in control -- think up your favorite books and replace them at Half Price Books, make lists of meals you can prepare with a microwave, find a place to sit and meditate, whatever.
posted by Madamina at 7:12 AM on January 8, 2013

Do either of them take daily meds? Pharmacy/doc whatever is needed on that front. Dietary needs? Other health things that are important and thrown off by this situation? I agree with Griphus about food and would add get them some healthy snacks - fruit or whatever they would find both convenient and comforting as well as healthy. Too easy to live on junk and caffeine in that situation!
posted by leslies at 7:42 AM on January 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Put up "missing" signs for the lost cats?
posted by mlle valentine at 7:48 AM on January 8, 2013

What to do after a home fire (from FEMA)

10 Tips (crummy site but fairly useful tips)

We had a house fire when I was 11. The structure didn't burn down but had to be extensively rebuilt - we pretty much lost the 2nd floor and the first floor was also basically ruined by water and soot damage.

Even if it doesn't look "that bad," it likely is a total loss. that's because it's not the fire damage itself, but the incredible soot and smoke damage coupled with water damage from firefighting that pervades every wall and crevice and makes the house unlivable as is.

If there are salvageable things, everything will need to be thoroughly washed. All clothing/textiles will reek of smoke -- take them to a laundromat with big front-loaders.

Anything wet will need to be dried. Photos and documents especially should be laid out in a single layer.

They should plan to be out of their house for a fairly long time. We lived in a motel for about two months. Not recommended. Consider looking for a short-term or "executive suite" rental in their neighborhood. they should stay close to the house so they can visit frequently and advise contractors, but it might be good not to be in a hotel environment that long.
posted by Miko at 7:51 AM on January 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

Miko: "If there are salvageable things, everything will need to be thoroughly washed. All clothing/textiles will reek of smoke -- take them to a laundromat with big front-loaders. "

Do not do this until the insurance company has given you the OK.

Unless you've got some family heirlooms, you really want the insurance company to replace as much as possible.
posted by schmod at 9:08 AM on January 8, 2013

Medication, eyeglasses/contacts/solution, deodorant, toothpaste, floss, shower, razor/shave cream, hair stuff, plenty of good food and lots of water, not too many recreational substances, kind-hearted company, changes of clothes, comfortable shoes, and a safe place to shower and sleep.

It is kind of you to offer to take the pictures. Seeing them might be difficult for your family members. Take as many pictures as you can if you are allowed, but I assume you should be careful no matter what, because the structure may not be sound. Don't forget to back the files up.
posted by juliplease at 9:09 AM on January 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I know it's been mentioned in the thread already, but the most frequent disaster the Red Cross responds to are house fires. The do it every week, of every month, of every year.

If the Red Cross hasn't contacted them already, they should contact the Red Cross.
posted by 517 at 9:11 AM on January 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ugh. I'm so sorry. All our possessions were smoked when the apartment next to ours burned because someone left a bare bulb burning in an overstuffed linen closet (we were away, of course). We had great renter's insurance, however. If you're reading this post out of idle curiosity, and you live in an apartment, make sure you have good renter's insurance! (I could be wrong, but I think homeowners have to have it; at least, we were required to when we bought our house.) Go get it. Now. Worth every penny.

When the firemen hacked a huge hole in our door, one of our cats managed to squeeze under the dresser (I have no idea how she did that!), while the other panicked and escaped. Our cat sitter found him hiding in the bushes next to the building, thank God. Your in-laws' poor kitties are probably around, traumatized and cold, but likely hiding very close by, so, in addition to notifying shelters, veterinarians, posting "missing" signs, etc., keep looking and knocking on doors and asking to look under neighbors' decks and in sheltered spots. I'm so sorry if the other ones were lost--that must be especially devastating.

And once you've found the cats, offer to keep them, if you can. We couldn't leave ours in the motel room unattended, so they had to ride around with us all day everywhere in their carriers, and they were NOT HAPPY.

I think the biggest pain in the neck is documentation. If you can help them with that, either setting up a system for them (for inventorying, figuring out what's salvageable and what's not, rescuing stuff from the site, maybe creating a spreadsheet to track everything and researching the cost of comparable replacement items, keeping track of expenses and receipts) or helping do it yourself, that would probably help enormously in keeping them from getting overwhelmed.

A digital recorder could help as they think of things throughout the day that were in the house, or tasks they need to accomplish. Smartphones usually have recording apps, but you can get a cheap one in Radio Shack that can be used for just clicking on and off.

Do they have access to a laptop, or was their computer destroyed? If you can lend them one or obtain an inexpensive one (like a netbook) and set it up for them, that would probably also help a lot. And a cheap printer. Office supplies--envelopes, stamps, stapler, paper clips, paper, folders, portable files--they're going to accumulate a lot of paper over the next weeks and months, probably starting yesterday.

Extra cell phone batteries and a wall charger could also be helpful, so that if they're out all day and relying heavily on their phones for data and calling and don't have anywhere to plug in, they will have extra juice when needed.

Seconding what schmod said about washing things--if there's anything that can be salvaged, your in-laws shouldn't try to clean it themselves. Chances are that they won't be able to, let alone get the smoke smell out. Their insurance should cover a cleaning service that does this professionally and will also clean valuables, if they can be cleaned (they may also cover specialty cleaning). They come in, pack and load everything up like movers, and bring it back in about a month, including things that they have been unsuccessful in cleaning (which, again, you list and replace). And it's amazing what they can clean! However, we were told that most plastic items, especially kitchen items, were a loss. The upside is that they get all new things, and maybe the opportunity to pare down a bit.

But the cats--I'm so sorry about the cats.
posted by tully_monster at 12:44 PM on January 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

My house fire was in the early 1980s so my information probably is a bit dated. But my experience was that insurance didn't actually cover everything. We got a lot of new things, but we also salvaged a lot of things that couldn't be replaced. Just sharing from my experience, but it sounds like insurance is a lot better now.
posted by Miko at 12:49 PM on January 8, 2013

Thanks for everything so far! Many tips have already been helpful.

They've met with Red Cross, and are working with their insurance. They managed to hold on to one of their laptops and one cell phone, so that helps.

They have also recovered the two cats that were outside! From what they could see from outside, the basement looks pretty untouched so maybe they will find them hiding.
posted by that's how you get ants at 2:48 PM on January 8, 2013

If they - or you - will be looking through the damaged house for heirlooms/jewelery/whatever may have survived, consider sturdy gloves and perhaps a respirator, to stop burns from embers/cuts from broken glass/asbestos exposure.
posted by quercus23 at 4:13 PM on January 8, 2013

They have also recovered the two cats that were outside! From what they could see from outside, the basement looks pretty untouched so maybe they will find them hiding.

I was worried about the cats, I will keep a good thought that the other two are in the basement, freaked out, but unharmed.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:56 AM on January 9, 2013

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