I get emails sometimes (I like emails a lot. I am limited in what I can do right now, so often my day's activities are limited to pushing refresh on Facebook and Yahoo.). The most frequent email I get related to the fire is, "Help. My friend's house burned down. I don't know what to do for them."
Here's what I usually say:
1. First and foremost, watch what you say. But please say something. "I am SO sorry. What can I do to help?" is always a very safe bet. Avoid phrases like, "At least you're ok" (because they probably aren't) or "It's just stuff" (because it probably wasn't).
2. Ask them what they need. The easiest way to find out what they need is to ask. For us, having help sifting through our stuff was important because we wanted to do it instead of a disaster clean-up company. Others might have those details taken care of. For others it might be helping out with a pet because of the living situation (likely at a hotel) or needing help finding a counselor or locating a pet-friendly hotel or finding something fun for their kids so that everyone can smile for a couple hours.
3. Gift cards. While I will be forever grateful for the stuff that was donated, there is great comfort in owning something of your own when you own nothing. The task of sorting through others' donations was daunting as well, and we were incredibly exhausted as it was. (If they are getting a lot of donations, offering to help them sort through them is INCREDIBLY helpful.) Gift cards are also great because they can save them for later once they are a little more settled as opposed to having to figure out what to do with stuff when they are likely essentially living out of their car.
4. Restaurant Gift Cards. We had no plates, no forks, no cups. Food was not of much help in the immediate aftermath. And insurance will pick up part of the meal tab, but not all of it, so gift cards are really helpful. Money is coming and going quickly, and every little bit helps.
And that brings me to a bigger point. One comment has continued to haunt me since the week after the fire. Someone in our lives asked, "What do you need?" I told them that gift cards would be great. They responded, "Won't insurance cover that?" The simple answer is "yes" but the longer answer is "no." There are a lot of insurance variations, and the fact is that many people don't have enough insurance for their contents. And when you go to buy a TV to replace your 27" tube TV, it isn't as though you can do that exactly. Technology changes. Stuff changes. And it's more expensive now. Granted, replacement coverage insurance takes care of some of that. But not all of it. Determining how to replace and how to ration insurance money is an art. I guess what I'm saying is that if you ask someone what they need and the response is related to contents, don't be surprised. And if you aren't comfortable assisting in that way, ask them more pointed questions like "Can we make you dinner?"
And finally, point them to sites like this or to others who have experienced house fires. Hopefully I will feel well enough to get to work on the website. Until then, I can always be reached via email. And I'm always more than happy to talk to families who are undergoing these kind of tragedies.
Fire Survivor Blogs
What I Wish I Could Say...
Why We Remember