What If….

This is not the post I planned to write this month, but the scary number of natural disasters in the news recently (one of which impacted my family) made me want to reach out and remind my customers to take a few steps to prepare for a worst-case scenario. Coincidentally, September is National Preparedness Month.

What if you lost your home due to a fire, a flood, an earthquake? My mother and step-father lost theirs in the Hurricane Harvey flooding in Houston, and that has motivated me to offer a few suggestions. Disaster planning is not my area of expertise, so this is hardly comprehensive, but after helping them in the aftermath of Harvey, these are the things that have been on my mind.

I also wanted to share an article I wrote for our local paper, a personal account of the devastation caused by the flood.

1. Back Up Your Computer To An Off-site Location

Personally, I back up to an external hard drive kept next to my computer, which is great if my problem is that my computer has crashed and I need to re-load all my data to a new one. But I also back up to a cloud-based service in case the house burns down, so that my data can still be retrieved. I’ve been using Crash Plan, but they will be discontinuing their service for home users, so I will soon be hunting for a new provider. Here are a some reviews I’ll be checking out: https://www.tomsguide.com/us/best-cloud-backup,review-2678.html and https://www.lifewire.com/online-backup-services-reviewed-2624712 .

Another option to a cloud-based back-up is to periodically back-up to an external drive which can be kept in a safe location, such as a bank safety deposit box. You will not always have the most current back-up of your data doing it this way, but it is a very easy option.

2. Use A Password Management App

Do I really need to explain why it is a bad idea to keep your passwords on a sheet of paper in your desk drawer? No, I didn’t think so. A good password management app will provide both a high level of security for your information and allow it to be synchronized across devices, so that even if you have lost your computer, you can access the data on a tablet or smart phone.

Also, make sure that the contact information you have registered with important online accounts, such as banks or credit cards, is current and includes your cell phone and the correct email address. If you are logging into your account using a device or browser that has not previously been authorized, you will generally have to go through a verification process that involves texting or emailing an authorization code. If your contact information is not current and you cannot receive the authorization codes, getting back into your accounts becomes much more complicated and time-consuming.

Here’s a recent review of some password managers: https://lifehacker.com/5529133/five-best-password-managers . I’m using 1Password and have been pleased with it.

3. Document Your Home And Its Contents

I was living in Laguna Beach in 1993, when a wildfire raged through the canyon and into town. Over 400 homes were destroyed or severely damaged. The fire burned to the end of the street where I was living, and only a change in the wind stopped it from getting to my apartment.

Ever since then, I’ve been meaning to make a visual record of my possessions for insurance purposes. But – true confession – for 24 years I have failed to cross “photograph contents of house” off my list of things to do. Coming close to losing my home apparently wasn’t enough motivation. But seeing first-hand what has happened to my mother and step-father’s home and helping them start to recover from such a horrible loss – that has done the job. I came home and started taking pictures.

I also looked into apps that would help document everything, and come across these reviews: https://www.thebalance.com/best-home-inventory-apps-ios-1294003 and https://park.ca/blog/2017/05/24/best-home-inventory-apps-2017/. The one I decided to try is Encircle, although I haven’t really started using it yet, so cannot personally report on its functionality.

4. Get Digital Images of Precious Photos

It’s probably been years since any of you used a film camera. In fact, some of my younger readers might NEVER have used a film camera. For your digital images, if you are not already backing them up to the cloud (or as part of your computer back up), you should start doing so. But if you have old-fashioned prints of photographs that are precious to you, make a digital copy of them. Either scan them, or simply take a photograph of the photograph. Just pick a few to start with.

5. Have Important Contact Information In Your Phone

You probably have contact information for family members and friends in your phone, but what about your insurance agent, your doctor, or your pharmacy?

6. And All the Rest

Then there’s all the issues related to simply surviving the disaster and seeing to it that basic human needs are met. Here’s a couple of web resources: https://www.ready.gov/ and http://www.redcross.org/get-help/how-to-prepare-for-emergencies .

A Home I Used To Know

A Personal Account Of The Devastation Caused By Hurricane Harvey

by Lorraine Hornby

170923_flood waters
Only the bedrooms upstairs were spared.

I grew up in Spring, Texas – once a rural area just north of Houston, now a congested jumble of suburbs and strip malls. Until September 3, a house on West North Hill Drive had been my mother’s home for more than 50 years. It was where I grew up, roller skating and riding my bicycle around the neighborhood in the days when parents could tell their children “go play in the street”.

It survived Alicia (1983), Allison (2001), Rita (2005) and Ike (2008). Harvey changed that. Mom and my step-father, Mike, were away when the storm hit. They managed to get a flight to Dallas, and spent the next week in a hotel there, able – for a while – to remotely access the security cameras at the house to watch the floodwaters rise.

On August 26 the water was coming up the driveway. By August 27 it was inside the house, she guessed to a depth of 2 or 3 feet. Neighbors had already evacuated.

My brother made plans to rent an SUV and drive from his home in Des Moines with his two sons, tools, and supplies, in order to be there when the flood waters went down enough to haul out the ruined possessions and rip out the sodden walls. I booked a flight.

Then the power went out and they could no longer access the cameras. One of my step-sisters saw a Weather Nation Live video on Facebook, and recognized a street name as a rescue boat chugged through the neighborhood. The video clearly showed Mom & Mike’s home, with water up to the roof of the first floor.

Mom told my brother to cancel his plans – who knew when the water would recede or the roads  open. My flight was scheduled for a few days later, and I kept my reservation in the hope that the airport would be open again by then. It was, and I arrived on September 5 – the day after I closed up my booth at the Sawdust Art Festival.

Even more than the home, my mother was worried about her dog, who had been boarded at a nearby kennel before they left on their trip. It turned out that the kennel stayed dry, although roads leading to it flooded. An employee lived close enough to wade through knee-deep water to care for the animals.

As anyone who has a pet knows, though, animals suffer stress just like humans do, and when she was finally able to get back to Spring and retrieve the dog, he was clearly traumatized. He is always a source of great comfort to her, but he was also the cause of terrible worry in the first days after the flood. He got bitten by something – we suspect a spider – which resulted in multiple trips to the vet. The only time I saw my mother cry that week was when she had to leave him at the vet for the third time in as many days (he is fine now).

The Kindness of Strangers, and Friends Who Aren’t

Hard times bring out the best and the worst in people. The fact that this is a cliché makes it no less true. Mom and Mike have received an astonishing amount of help from complete strangers.

First, there was the family that they met in their hotel in Dallas, who loaned them a car to drive from Dallas to Spring as soon as the roads were open.

170923_utility room_kitchen
This was once the utility room and kitchen.  Volunteers cleared the house and stripped the walls before mold started growing.

Then, over Labor Day weekend, there were the community volunteers who set up a command center in the neighborhood and organized dozens (maybe even hundreds, I don’t really know) of volunteers, along with food, water, and clean-up supplies. They literally dug in and did the filthy, sweaty, back-breaking job of dragging out ruined furniture, appliances, and possessions, then stripping the walls to the studs.

In the week following Labor Day the majority of those volunteers had gone back to their own jobs and I was wondering how I would move the debris still in the back yard around to the pile in the front on my own, when two people walked up to the house and asked if we needed help. I gratefully said “yes”.

As for the worst, there are of course the looters and the hustlers and the corporations that seek to profit from the victims’ misfortune. On a personal level, you will discover that some “friends” are not. It’s just another wound to your heart, already hurting from the loss of your home and the treasured mementos of your life.

Cleaning Up

For the first five days of cleanup, no confirmed information was available to as when the debris would be removed. Thanks to the hard work of the volunteers, every house on the street had been cleared, and each lawn was covered with the ruined contents, piled several feet high.

Then someone came around to distribute printouts of a pretty graphic from FEMA illustrating how the rubble should be separated into tidy piles: electronics, household waste, hazardous waste, appliances, vegetative debris, construction debris, and ordinary household waste. And it should all be within 10 feet of the curb and not near any trees.

FEMA’s view of the world.

The reality bore no resemblance to the pretty FEMA graphic. Everyone worried that their yard would not get cleared if they did not sort the garbage, but truly, it would have required another army of volunteers to do so. Eventually, we learned that the Home Owner’s Association wasn’t going to wait for FEMA and had hired a dump truck and excavator. Trash removal started a week after the flood, and thankfully, they took everything, sorted or not.

170923_debris pile-view from upstairs
The way it really is.

There is never going to be anything easy about losing your home and its contents, whether it is by fire or flood or earthquake or tornado. But I think flood is the worst.  When the water goes down and you start to clear your ruined belongings, you open a drawer and it is still full of water. All the clear plastic boxes used to neatly organize things in the garage are full of water.  You see your soaked photograph albums. You are left with the task of dismantling a structure which is still standing, albeit soaking wet, and you must rush to demolish the walls so the studs can be sprayed to prevent mold.

Helping Out

For those displaced by a disaster, after the basic human needs of shelter, food, and water are met, what is needed most is labor. If you are going to volunteer labor, take your own protective gear: respirator masks, eye protection, gloves, sturdy shoes, hat, sunscreen, insect repellant.

People who have lost their homes need help doing laundry, finding a place to live temporarily, cleaning and packing whatever possessions they have managed to salvage. And chances are, they need tech support. I spent a great deal of time setting up Mom & Mike’s iPads and phones to do things they were used to doing on their computers (Mom’s computer was lost in the flood, Mike’s survived in an upstairs room, but he no longer had internet access on it).

170923_important papers lost
Important papers and all the family photograph albums were lost.

It is a long and stressful road, recovering from a disaster. Mom and Mike are on their way, though. Most days bring progress, sometimes huge, sometimes small. But progress.