Finding out someone’s house has burned down is shocking. How can you help and what can you do? Below is a list on how to help. There is a lot you can do and most of it costs you $0 and very little time. Don’t worry about stepping on toes. When someone loses everything, they need everything. You make a big difference in someone’s life after the fire when you take direct action.
1. Offer your condolences and ask how you can help. You may simply need to help the victims process their shock and grief.
2. “Are you okay?” and “How can I help you?” are good starts, but I find the more direct, “What do you need?” to be the best thing you can say. Figurative questions require thought processing and someone in shock can’t do this too well. So asking if the person is okay followed by asking what a person needs is a good enough combo, especially if you can add a hug or an arm around the shoulders for support. Nothing else is really needed and this is such a delicate time that there really is no euphemism that will work. Keep it simple.
“All that matters is that you are safe,” and “Everything is or will be okay” are meant to ground a person and give them stability, but is this what the person feels or wants to feel right now? They are trying to cope with post traumatic stress (PTS) and tapping into the emotional side of the brain, not the logical side. Time, control, and security are needed but even this description of what is occurring doesn’t do the situation justice. So just stick with the basics: Start praying and helping by asking direct questions and taking direct action.
So you’ve found out what is needed right away. Once you know what the priorities are, you can act on them and accomplish a lot for a distraught family that has just lost everything. Going through rubble is sometimes just too much of a symbol for fire survivors. But, it has to be done to find out what survived the fire. If this is the first priority, tackle it head on — once the fire department gives the okay signal. If a disaster clean-up company is needed or desired, you can at least make the call and direct the crew when they arrive.
3. Cash, Gift Cards – especially for restaurants. Gift cards are a blessing almost as much as cash! While gratitude for donated clothes, furniture, and other things is a given, there is a special kind of gratitude you feel when you actually have the freedom to get what you need and want. When living out of your car or a hotel, you will take almost anything – if you have space, that is. This is where gift cards come in.
Maxi pads, tampons, medication, condoms, deodorant and toilet paper – who gives you this and who do you ask for this? Gift cards and cash give you freedom and anonymity, oh yeah – and control in a situation where you feel completely control-less! The whole ordeal of losing your home in something as quick and powerful as a home fire is exhausting. So is mustering up enough courage to ask complete strangers and organizations for charity and scrounging around clothing bins for under pants.
Sorting through mountains of things you need and things you think you might need, after you’ve just sifted through your charred household remains is mind numbing. Maybe the gift cards won’t be used right away. Cars, hotel rooms and a friend’s couch aren’t great for storage. The peace of mind that you can rely on gift card later on though! Knowing that there is help when you need it really helps people settle into their new normal.
Specifically, restaurant gift cards are helpful. When your living in a hotel/motel, there are no utensils, plates or cups. If there is a mini fridge, groceries still won’t really fit. Insurance companies will usually only reimburse a set amount of meals per day and up to a certain cost. Even if someone has more than enough insurance for the content within the home, there are priceless items that that can’t be replaced (so maybe splurging a bit in other areas brings a bit more comfort), costs that won’t be recouped and depreciated items like computers and other technology or electronics that won’t actually be replaced, even with replacement cost insurance.
SIDE NOTE ON REPLACEMENT COST:
When I worked at an insurance company, we had to tell people to replace a three-year-old computer with a “like kind and quality” since you can’t find a computer that age at a Walmart or BestBuy. There’s just no way to find a match. But you have to try. Let’s say your computer would be currently valued at only $75 because of the age. The check from the insurance company would be the same value of $75 and that money would be all that you would get to put towards a newer computer.
Remember: If the cost-of-living is high or low, that will impact food and gas costs. This is especially financially scary when dealing with an extended stay hotel living situation.
4. A list of resources will help: Soup kitchens, food banks, the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, United Way… Remember local churches and FMLA and company charities. You don’t need money to do any of this.
5. Are there any pets that need temporary, or permanent new homes? Pet-friendly lodging is hard to find and giving beloved pets to a shelter is heart-wrenching. Even the no-kill shelters have time restraints and limited spaces available. If you, or someone you trust, can take the pet(s) that would make a world of difference! If this is too much, making dinner for the survivors and their animals still helps a lot. Pets and people both need to eat and sharing a meal together brings temporary but sweet relief. Inviting someone over to shower, shave, take a nap, and have dinner is even better.
6. Unique but excellent gift: External hard drives to act as back-ups, which then get stored with other valuables (like original docs e.g. passports, birth certificates, photos, old film negatives, and precious items like wedding movies and jewelry) in a fire and water proof safe. Offer these as gifts etc. or even offer to pay for a safe deposit box for a few months
7. Help prepare for future disasters by providing safe guards.