How do I help my friend who just lost everything she owns in a fire?
July 10, 2008 10:45 PM   Subscribe

My friend's apartment just burned down and everything she owns is gone. How do I help? Any advice for her I can pass on?

One of my dearest friends just called me about 2 hours ago to tell me that she was watching her apartment, and in fact the entire building, burn to the ground. Everything she owns is gone with the exception of the clothes she was wearing, her purse, and anything that may have been in her car. We don't have all the details yet, but it sounds like one of her neighbors did something dumb with fire, like grilling in an enclosed wooden porch.

Besides listening, how can I help? Unfortunately, neither one of us is in a flush financial situation. She's going to her sister's tonight and will very likely stay there for a bit. She's still in shock, but I think it will hit her tomorrow. Hell, I am in shock and it's not even my home and possessions. I know this will suck regardless, but I would like to make it easier any way I can.

Also, does anyone have any advice I can pass on to her? She has renter's insurance, but she recently moved and had not updated the address yet. She's not sure how that might impact things. She will be starting over from scratch and it's going to be tough figuring out exactly where to begin. Thank you!
posted by katemcd to Home & Garden (29 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
If the city in which she lives has a Red Cross branch with a disaster response team, they may already be talking with her, but if not, have her call the Red Cross. This is what the organization is there for. They will assess the damage to her property, and give her a debit card with money for clothing, housing, furniture, and whatever else she needs to get back on her feet and start living her life again. They will also give her whatever resources or contacts she needs to be able to do this as easily and as quickly as possible.
posted by phunniemee at 10:51 PM on July 10, 2008 [3 favorites]

Oh gosh. If you have any photos with her in them, or other such memorabilia which includes events in her life, gather them into a new album and give it to her (when she's ready, of course, and has a place to stay again). That stuff is irreplaceable, and anything she gets back now will be like a part of her life that's been snatched back from oblivion.
posted by roombythelake at 10:53 PM on July 10, 2008

I don't think this will directly help your friend, but in this TED video, David Hoffman talks about losing thirty years of possessions, and his story may help you understand what she's going through.
posted by roger ackroyd at 11:06 PM on July 10, 2008

When I was living in Atlanta in the 1980s in an aparment complex in little five points, one of the buildings in the complex completely burned down one night. So we're all standing around the next morning with our neighbors, pondering the same sorts of things you are, wondering about how to replace all that stuff, wondering what's that guy none of us knew gonna think when he got home to see his crib gone, and then than a couple of firemen come out - nonchalantly - carrying that guy none of us knew in a body bag.

It's trite and cliche, but all that stuff can be replaced. Even the stuff that's irreplaceable.
posted by three blind mice at 11:08 PM on July 10, 2008 [3 favorites]

-You could talk to your friends/family and see if they can donate anything (could be a good excuse to clean house).

-I second the photo idea. Maybe ask your friends to do the same.
posted by ISeemToBeAVerb at 11:10 PM on July 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

-You could talk to your friends/family and see if they can donate anything (could be a good excuse to clean house).
posted by ISeemToBeAVerb

That was my first thought and I think my best one -- put the word out to everybody and anybody, and I mean the kid who pours your coffee in the morning, you co-worker, the guy on the subway. People are often very kind, and people often like to help others in time of need, to boot.
posted by dancestoblue at 11:17 PM on July 10, 2008

Oh, and for what it's worth, I've volunteered at the Red Cross for years and years, and some of that time was spent answering and routing the disaster services phone calls. People call in all the time to get assistance after things like this happen (tree fell on my house, apartment burned down, street flooded, power went out). Unfortunate things happen to the very rich and the very poor alike. There is absolutely no shame in it, in case your friend might be concerned about calling and asking for handouts. Even at the relatively small branch I used to be at we received dozens of calls per day.

She'll want to ask for disaster/emergency services. The sooner she calls, the better. And there are people there all night long, every day.
posted by phunniemee at 11:19 PM on July 10, 2008

She needs to check with her insurance company and see about their terms ASAP. I was once burgled less than 12 hours after moving into a place, and I lost just about everything, too. It's a long story, but I did happen to still have a receipt for a computer that was stolen. (The ex-boyfriend and the cause of my disastrous move had it). This proved my ownership and worth of the computer, and I was able to get reimbursed for it, even though it had been moved to a new location and stolen from there.

As for dealing with the loss, she'll forget most of her possessions over time. In my case, I never replaced some of the things that were stolen - I realized I didn't need them. It's the sentimental things that hurt, but one thing that helps is to make NEW memories. What's something she loves to do? You two could go and do whatever that is and take lots of photos for a photo album. Or you could get in touch with her friends and family and ask them to help put together a scrapbook or cards or letters or anything tangible that represents the awesome people and good times she still has in her life. It won't replace what's lost, but it'll give her something new to smile about.
posted by katillathehun at 11:22 PM on July 10, 2008

This happened to me, in my first apartment, no less.

At this point, little things are the most important. A bag of toiletries, in a case or tote. Underwear, socks, stuff like that. Clothes - get up a group contribution to get her some gift certificates, or at least let her know you'll lend her anything she needs. A change of shoes might be one of the nicest things you can do for her - even if it's just a pair of flip-flops. Since her immediate shelter needs are taken care of, help with the day-to-day stuff she needs - picture everything she'd pack to take a week-long trip, figure out how much of that she doesn't have.

The real work begins once she finds a new place. It's a lot of work to re-furnish and rebuild from scratch - buying an apartment full of furniture, books, tech stuff, clothes, shoes, whatever, is no joke. Neither is moving it all in. Be there to help move, arrange, etc.

There may be some salvageable stuff, depending on the extent of the fire. After the site is cleared and they're allowed to go in, it's a miserable, messy job to go through rooms with smoke and water damage - volunteer to help out. Bring face masks and bottles of water.

It's awful to feel anchorless - and so many of our things are valuable not just in themselves, but as context for your life. But it's oddly freeing, too - now's not the right time to tell her this, but she won't miss half the stuff she lost. The rest is replaceable, eventually.
posted by peachfuzz at 12:04 AM on July 11, 2008

Not today, but soon, she needs to lawyer up. The guy who set the fire is liable for her loss and she needs to decide whether she wants to sue.
posted by Class Goat at 12:11 AM on July 11, 2008

Sue? Really?

If her renter's insurance covers things (or even most things, or some things) and she's not hurt, what good could bringing a lawsuit against the person who (presumably accidentally) caused the fire possibly do?
posted by peachfuzz at 12:19 AM on July 11, 2008

peachfuzz, if she had insurance, the insurance company would be suing the firebug. If she doesn't, it's the only real choice. We can all regret his negligence, but it was nonetheless negligence.
posted by dhartung at 12:32 AM on July 11, 2008

If a friend of mine lost everything in a fire, I would tend towards the practical and send a big gift certificate for a general store like Target or WalMart. I'd also make sure that I called or sent something along after the first wave of sympathy so they wouldn't feel forgotten. And, if I had anything that was a momento that would mean something to her, I would give it to her when she got resettled. Also, I'd cruise yard sales and Freecycle for useful stuff for her if we lived close enough that I could bring it over.
posted by Foam Pants at 1:19 AM on July 11, 2008

Physical stuff is necessary and whatnot, but if I were in your shoes, I would emphasize that she still has her friends and memories. These things mean more to me than any material possession and a nice simple gesture with perhaps a hint of sympathy would be much more comforting than any gift basket or package of socks.

Let her know that you are there for her if she needs anything at all. Maybe have a get together/party for her to emphasize that she has many things in her life much more important than any computer lost in a random fire.
posted by clearly at 2:26 AM on July 11, 2008

If this happened to me, I'd want some company while I went thrift store shopping for stuff to carry me forward until the insurance check paid out. Also, if you are her size bring over some clothes and see if she wants them.

When I lived in San Jose, a four story victorian burned to the ground and left 8-10 people homeless. I brought clothes and coffee over while it was still burning, people were standing around in their underwear. Red cross had already arrived and was giving away $100 target gift certificates.
posted by BrotherCaine at 4:06 AM on July 11, 2008

Offer to put her up for a few days when she needs to get out of her sister's hair.
posted by BrotherCaine at 4:08 AM on July 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

How horrible.
The above advice is all excellent, especially getting her clean clothes/shoes right now, and trying to provide as much normalcy as possible.
In 2000, my next door neighbour's house burnt down in the middle of the night, (luckily very little damage to my property) and in 2006 some shitheads stole a car, then dumped it & set fire to it in the basement carpark of my block of flats. No major damage that time either, but the feeling in your viscera when you realise all those trucks with flashing lights are parked outside your home is indescribable.
Your friend may be fine, or it may take her some time to feel safe & secure again. I don't want to throw around the term PTSD willy nilly, but after the two incidents I mentioned above, it was a long time before I was able to sleep properly and feel safe in my home, and I really didn't like being left alone. Make sure she knows she has friends who care and are watching out for her, and that she can call on when she needs to. If she is on her own, ask her if she needs some company. You sound like a great friend, she is lucky to have you. Best wishes.
posted by goshling at 4:13 AM on July 11, 2008

Physical stuff is necessary and whatnot, but if I were in your shoes, I would emphasize that she still has her friends and memories.

Please don't do this to the point of minimizing what's happened. Yes, it's fantastic that she's okay, but it's also totally okay for her to feel shell-shocked and upset about suddenly losing all of her wordly belongings, especially when there's question of whether she'll have coverage. Yes, it's just stuff - but it's all of her stuff, and as others have pointed out, that's a huge psychic blow.

Just tell her how glad you are that she is safe, and see what you can do for the basics.
posted by canine epigram at 5:28 AM on July 11, 2008

The guy who set the fire is liable for her loss and she needs to decide whether she wants to sue.

Unless the guy has liability insurance, she isn't likely to get anything from him. And the insurance company will be looking into that.
posted by orange swan at 6:15 AM on July 11, 2008

Craigslist has a surprising amount of free stuff that people are just trying to get rid of, and Freecycle seems to be pretty popular. If my house burned down to the ground, those would be the first two places I would look for the initial pass to start filling the rooms of a new place.
posted by TheManChild2000 at 6:29 AM on July 11, 2008

Get her the right charger for her cell phone - she'll need it.
posted by dowcrag at 6:29 AM on July 11, 2008 [5 favorites]

It's hard to think about right now, but advise her to keep every receipt, copies of every tiniest bit of paperwork and documentation of the incident and her losses, all documentation of Red Cross and other assistance, and use a qualified, capable tax preparer next year. This happened to some people I know, and the twist of the knife was the audit and penalties several years later over some un-dotted i or un-crossed t. Get her one of those portable accordion files today and just put everything in it. It can be sorted later. Finding that tax pro should be a medium-critical task on her list, and the sooner the better, but reasonably it's probably not going to be something she gets done this month. You might be able to put together a short list for her, though - do the leg/phone work for her (check with the Red Cross in her area to start with, they may have a list for you). You may also be able to do some research for her on assistance programs; she's not going to have the concentration to do it herself.

As busy as she will be in the next weeks, if you can help her find a counselor and get her going ASAP, she will not regret it later. This kind of disaster causes grief that keeps on giving.

Definitely start the search for photos, and sentimental items that anyone you both know might be willing to pass on to her. The next couple of weeks will be all about clothes, underwear, shoes, and toiletries, so if you are able to hook her up with any "luxury" items, whether that's just some fluff-reading books or magazines or supplies for her favorite craft or activity, something that feels a little more like a gift than charity, I think it might help her stress level some.

Call her all the time, visit her or have her visit you if at all possible, and keep it up. People around her are going to return to normal far faster than she will, and that's just how our brains are, but it's going to be hard on her.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:45 AM on July 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

We had a bunch of friends who lost homes in the wildfires last year. It is a devastating experience.

If anyone says that they want to help - and trust me people will want to help - tell them to get her a gift card. When you're rebuilding everything, you need cash. We're not talking Saks 5th Ave gift cards, but grocery store cards, Target, Costco. There are plenty of people who will want to help, but won't know how or won't have a lot of money. A 10 dollar gift card is small, easy and she'll need it.

Mostly, you need to be a good friend. Listen when she needs you to listen; comfort her when she's afraid. Be prepared to do that whenever she needs it for the next year or so. It's going to take her awhile to get back on her feet emotionally. It can be draining for friends, but commit to being there for her for the long haul.
posted by 26.2 at 7:08 AM on July 11, 2008

The advice to use freecycle and craigslist is great. But... lots of times, people will use this as a chance to get rid of real CRAP. So my advice is to offer to be the middleman between people with good intentions wanting to donate, and your friend. Let her use your address as the place to drop stuff off. Go through it all and cherry-pick the best items, and quietly re-freecycle or goodwill the 70's pantsuits and flea-bitten couch and the like.

People who donate will have great intentions, but I would imagine it would make your friend feel worse to have to "make do" with things that are obviously other people's ugly cast-offs.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:17 AM on July 11, 2008

Outside of the good legal and comforting advice, I'll offer this.

The same thing happened to me about 10 or so years ago. I get a call from my brother who said something like: "Guess what I'm doing? I'm watching your apartment burn to the ground!"

I had a two hour drive to get back there and of course everything was ashes and melted plastic by then. I lost everything except what was on my person and in my car. I looked at the ruins and quite honestly I was exhilirated. Everything was new.

It can be a terrible blow to lose the things that you have worked hard to obtain, the things that you love and make you comfortable. But they are just "things". My brother had a six-pack waiting for me when I got there and we polished off a few watching the firemen and laughing. Sure it was hard (and expensive) getting up and running again but in the end the detritus that built around my life was removed and I was forced to change, reinvent, and renew. It was a good thing.

I'm not suggesting that the above pithy ancedote is going to immediately help your friend - grieving for any loss is important - but perhaps in time she'll come to understand that clearing out the clutter in ones life, whether planned or accidental, can be an opportunity for growth.
posted by elendil71 at 8:44 AM on July 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

A couple of years ago, I had a co-worker who woke up in the middle of the night to find his electrical panel ablaze, and barely had enough time to get his wife and daughter out of the house alive. They literally lost *everything*, not even having their street clothes.

We took up a collection at work the next morning, and had $1000 by noon. I went home at lunch and got some spare luggage and filled it with incidentals at Wal-mart- underwear, toiletries, things of that nature. I had a second - hand computer at home and gave them that, as well.

Two years on, they are in a new place, and happy they are all there and alive. I like to think we made a difference.

Small things mean a lot to others, and we tend to forget it. A gift card to a favorite restaurant was one of the small things my friend told me made a huge difference- it was a touchstone to normalcy in the midst of all the craziness and chaos.
posted by pjern at 9:11 AM on July 11, 2008

This happened to me too. Seconding the Red Cross suggestion. They were very helpful to me immediately after the fire, and your friend should take advantage of the services they have to offer. She's lucky to have family to stay with, and that she has her purse. At least she has some ID and some moral support that will help her start to get back on her feet in the next few days. If she has renter's insurance, that will be a much different story than if she didn't. I didn't (and learned an important lesson.)

Peachfuzz is right. It's the little things that matter right now. Also seconding Goshling. The psychological impact can be immense, at least in the short-term. The first few days, she will be in shock, and the reality won't really set in. It will be several weeks or a month (after the sense of emergency dies down), that the sense of loss will really begin to set in. That's when she may need her friends most.

If she is allowed back in the building to salvage, focus first on paperwork. I was surprised how much of my files, although soaked in sooty water, were salvageable, once separated and laid out to dry. I was able to recapture most of my tax records, financial statements, medical/personal data, though it was a lot of dirty, smelly work to get it peeled out of saturated files and spread out or hung somewhere to dry. Rescuing the personal records was probably the most important thing for me, later on. Since she won't have a space to do this, you could help by offering a basement, porch, or kitchen floor for this purpose.

As for other salvage, it is tempting to try to take everything that isn't burned, but I learned that the smoke smell and sooty stains are impossible to get out of things, and wood and plastics will hang onto the odor forever. 70% of what I salvaged had to be eventually thrown away anyway, because the smell wouldn't dissipate, and that smell begins to induce nightmares after a while. You could help her by being a voice of reason and not allowing her emotions to turn the salvage into a lot of futile effort. (Pots and pans and some dishes came out fine. Books, clothing, shoes, not worth it, no matter how much you spent on them and no matter how many times you think you can wash them afterwards.)

As others here have said, it was remarkable to me how little any of the stuff mattered to me anymore, 6 months or a year later. It is, for the most part, just stuff. For me that was a profound life lesson. Try to help her not to obsess over the material loss right now. She will recover, and she will probably recover a lot more quickly than she thinks, even if she isn't covered by insurance.

Second-hand donations from friends (and strangers!—I couldn't believe how generous people who I didn't even know were to me) are helpful, but only up to a point. When you've just lost everything, I can't tell you how much it sucks to hear people to tell you that you are lucky to have their used sheets and blankets, chipped china, and worn out appliances. I couldn't believe how many people used my misfortune as a chance to off-load their crap and feel self-righteous about their generosity. I literally received broken, stained and torn items. Not that I wasn't totally grateful for people's assistance, but somehow it only goes to sharpen your sense of loss when you are surrounded by other people's worn out castoffs instead of your own beloved things.

SuperSquirrel's idea to filter donations for her is a good one. And if at all possible, try to raise cash donations or gift cards instead. This will help your friend to start rebuilding her life at her own pace, getting what she needs when she needs it. This is going to be a slow process, and she'll probably greive a lot over the first few months.

Good luck to her. And kudos to you for being a supportive friend.
posted by amusebuche at 9:12 AM on July 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

These are all great answers-thank you so much! Usually I'm pretty resourceful, but I was having a hard time figuring out a starting point. You have given me some excellent ideas.

She did meet with the Red Cross, and I'll find out more about where she stands when she wakes up. Already I have been astounded by how much my co-workers, who have never met my friend and just heard the story from me, want to help. I suppose it is one of the few upsides when something devastating happens: you are reminded that most people really are amazingly generous and kind. It can be very moving and help give some much needed hope.

For those of you who mentioned that this is an opportunity for a fresh start, I'm hoping she will come to view it that way, but I think that will take some time. If she were in a better position to launch a fresh start, I think that would quicken the process, but she has recently had a string of rather lousy luck, and I'm somewhat concerned that this could be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back. I want to do everything I can to prevent that from happening. We both commented last night how relieved we were that she was awake and not physically harmed and are very grateful it wasn't worse. Again, thank you for all of your very helpful answers!
posted by katemcd at 9:13 AM on July 11, 2008

throwing in one last suggestion: I assume that your friend can get new sets of family pictures from parents, etc. - but it would be GREAT if you could go through friends and come up with a set of pictures from events/trips/hangouts.
posted by Acer_saccharum at 9:42 AM on July 11, 2008

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