Things You Learn When You Almost Lose Everything

by Lara Rutherford-Morrison

At 3AM on a crisp July morning four years ago, I woke up to my boyfriend shaking my shoulder. “Do you smell smoke?” he asked. “Someone’s cooking. Go back to sleep,” I mumbled, still half-asleep. Lucky for me, he turned on a light instead, and I blinked my eyes open to the sight of black smoke pouring into my bedroom windows. The building next door—the one only separated from mine by a few feet—was on fire.

Two hours later, the sun was coming up, everyone from my building was standing on the sidewalk, the place next door was a pile of ashes, and we were all suddenly homeless. The firemen were able to technically save my building, but the damage was severe. Every apartment suffered from major smoke and water damage,* and the building wouldn’t be habitable for months. In the immediate wake of the fire, my fellow tenants and I were surprisingly buoyant. We all felt incredibly blessed, I think, that no one was hurt; and we were relieved that, despite the extensive damage, we hadn’t lost everything. But although the things I had to deal with after the fire seemed trivial compared to what could have happened, the following weeks were hard. Finding a new place to live, dealing with insurance, and living without any of my belongings for the months it took to have them cleaned was stressful. Survivable, but stressful—and I was one of the few lucky enough to have insurance and a strong network of friends nearby. Looking back now, I see the whole experience as profoundly educational, teaching me both about the practicalities of dealing with property loss and—I know it's cheesy but bear with me—about what’s really important. This is what I learned.


OK, I’m going to go into boring old lady lecture mode for a minute: You need renters’ insurance. Don’t argue with me, child—you do. Even if all of your furniture is crap, your clothes are threadbare, and your computer is a dinosaur, you still need renters’ insurance. It’s important to remember that renter’s insurance isn’t just about replacing your most expensive belongings. How would you get by if everything you own—from your computer to your toothbrush to your underwear—suddenly went up in flames? You should also keep in mind that renter’s insurance doesn’t simply replace lost property. In my situation, the primary expense was not replacing things, but having everything I own professionally de-smoked, which was shockingly expensive. Furthermore, depending on where you live and what kind of insurance you get, your renters’ insurance might also cover important things like paying for temporary housing until you find a new place to live and even paying for meals when you’re suddenly without a kitchen.

You can’t know what is going to happen in the future, but having insurance is a way to give yourself a little peace of mind. It comes in handy for both minor inconveniences (say, hypothetically, when your husband loses his wedding ring) and for major disasters. Renter’s insurance is also surprisingly inexpensive, so there’s no excuse not to have it. Go get it. Right now!

2. Know where a few essentials things are

If you are in a situation in which you have to evacuate your home, know where important things are, and take them with you. In the aftermath of whatever disaster is happening, it will be a huge help for you to have your phone and wallet, with an ID and credit card. If you are living in a country where you are not a citizen (as I am right now), grabbing your passport is a good idea, too.

That said, do not take stupid risks. Obviously, safety comes first. If there is fire flooding into your house, or you are in immediate danger of any kind, do not risk your life or the lives of others so that you can get your phone. Nothing is that important.

3. Keep everything in the Cloud

This is obvious. Keep any remotely important documents and photos backed up in as many ways as possible—external hard drives, the cloud, whatever you need.

4. Get organized in the aftermath

After a disaster like a fire or hurricane, life will feel completely chaotic, but it’s important to get organized if you can. There will be a lot to juggle in terms of insurance, cleaning companies, moving companies, construction companies, and so on, and it will be all the crazier because you’re not living in your own home. Keep detailed records of what has been destroyed, what needs to be cleaned, and what needs to be repaired, along with information about the people and companies who have been assigned to perform these services. It’s tedious work, but it will make your life easier in the long run.

5. It’s just stuff

For me, the most important lesson that came out of this crazy and frightening situation was that, at the end of the day, it’s all just stuff. To ask “what one thing would you save if your house was on fire?” is a cliché, appearing in self-help manuals and community building exercises the world over, but it’s a question I have actually faced. As my building was being evacuated, there was moment when tenants were running back in to grab things. I felt a panicked impulse to run back in, too—there must be ­something I needed to save, right? Something that is irreplaceable, that I would be devastated to lose. But as I struggled to think of what that object might be, I finally realized that it simply didn't exist. It’s all just stuff. The people I care about are safe. I’m safe. That’s what matters.**

* It seems counterintuitive that water damage would be a major side effect of fire, but it is; fire hoses can dump hundreds of gallons of water into whatever manages to survive the fire. Having belongings that are both burnt and wet is double the fun.

** Of course, this feeling is contingent on HAVING RENTER’S INSURANCE. It’s much harder to be blasé about losing property when you have no money to pay to replace it.

Images: Fotolia; Giphy(2); Becky Wetherington/Flickr