It wasn’t the woman screaming outside that woke me up; it was the strange popping sound. It was 5:45 a.m., and I’d only been asleep maybe two hours. Groggy, I shuffled to the window and pushed a slat of blinds up with my finger.
Pop. Pop-pop-pop. Pop.
The girl who lived in the townhouse unit next to mine stood on the sidewalk, illuminated from what I gathered was every light in the house shining through her window.
“The dogs are dead!” she screamed at her boyfriend between sobs. “Get out of the house!”
Suddenly reality came into focus. The building was ablaze. The intense heat was shattering windows. Pop-pop. Pop. She was lit by the glow of a raging fire on the other side of two pieces of drywall just six feet from where I stood.
I had to get out of the house. Now.
No time to think
I put on my clothes, made sure I had my wallet, keys and phone, and dialed 911. I raced down the stairs, put on my shoes, opened the front door and ducked under the flames licking the wooden siding that connected my home from my neighbors’ fully engulfed unit. Smoke and flames poured out of the shattered windows.
I answered the 911 dispatcher’s questions while I waited for help to arrive. As neighbors gathered around, one asked me whether there was anyone else inside my unit. My cat. I didn’t get my cat out.
Stupidly, I ran back in to find him. I couldn’t. I may have only been inside 15 seconds. It seemed like minutes. “Get out of there!” the neighbor yelled to me. I ran back out under the flames.
The fire trucks arrived and firefighters began hitting the building with water. One got on a ladder with a chainsaw to carve out pieces of the wooden siding to prevent the fire from spreading further down the building. He yelled down to another one as the saw cut into the wood. I saw a man dash up the stairs in my unit. I didn’t know why.
I could lose everything within minutes. I had nothing with me but the dirty clothes I threw back on and what was in my pockets.
Why didn’t I grab anything else on my way out the door? What should I have taken? Where was my cat?
I got incredibly lucky
After the fire was out, I went inside to survey the damage. I was spared. The sum total of my losses was a soot-covered lampshade by the front door and a Sevendust T-shirt that met the business end of the fireman’s chainsaw.
That’s why he yelled down to the other firefighter. He realized he was cutting into my closet and wanted the clothes moved out of the way before he continued.
My cat came back two days later.
The next several weeks were inconvenient, while my landlord paid to have a special cleaning crew remove the soot from my walls. The disaster recovery company left several ionizers to help scrub the air and remove the scent of fire. I got new carpet throughout the house because there were sooty footprints crushed into the old carpet. Construction crews began each day at 8 a.m. to repair the fire-damaged unit next door.
I worked afternoons, so 8 a.m. wasn’t my favorite time to hear nail guns and sledge hammers. But I didn’t lose everything and I wouldn’t be living next to a burned-out shell, so I was just fine with it.
Eventually, life returned to normal.
A lesson learned again
After that night some 14 years ago, I bought a fireproof safe to store all my valuables. I made backup discs of my computer and stored them in a drawer at work. I thought about what I might grab on the way out the door if that ever happened again.
I’ve gotten complacent over the years.
I’ve moved around. My life situation has changed dramatically. I live in a much bigger place than I did back then. I have a lot more stuff.
Then I read the story of Dads Dollars Debt, who woke up in the early morning when a neighbor banged on his door to tell him the California wildfires were closing in and it was time to evacuate. He left in a rush, grabbing a box of camping equipment and nothing of real value as he fled with his family.
His home burned to the ground. Everything inside gone. In his reflection on what he would have done differently, he talks about wishing he had created an evacuation list. What would he take with him if he had almost no time to prepare, some time to prepare, or half a day to prepare?
Oh yeah. Now I remember, I’ve had this same thought before, as I walked back into the home I feared was going to burn just that morning. Why had I forgotten that feeling after all these years?
Revisiting my “important documents”
There’s a Facebook post that makes it into my feed about once a year: If you were stranded on a desert island for the rest of your life, what 10 CDs would you want with you? (I suppose a sand-proof Discman and a solar charger are waiting for us there, right Professor? Precisely, Gilligan.)
We rack our brains trying to imagine being without everything else but these 10 albums of music forever. We justify Abba’s greatest hits “for variety” and implore our Facebook friends to put themselves in the same ill-fated boat. But how many of us have actually spent that much effort on a very real-world scenario: Your house is on fire and you can take 10 things out with you. Everything else is gone forever. What do you grab?
We justify Abba’s greatest hits “for variety” and implore our Facebook friends to put themselves in the same ill-fated boat.
I started thinking about this and went to the box where I keep my “important documents.” It was all the way in the furthest corner closet of my basement, somewhere I most certainly am not running when glass is shattering and smoke alarms blaring.
Tax documents going back to 2002. Years-old medical results. Set lists from Limp Bizkit in 1998 and Bayside in 2015. A few newspapers with historic front pages. Receipts from god knows when. Spare checks.
Burn, baby, burn.
After sifting through probably 200 documents I decided what was really important. I grabbed an envelope with postcards and letters my late grandma sent to me at band camp over 20 years ago and notes my wife left me when we first started dating. I picked up my portable hard drive with all my music and photos. Done.
Why is this box of “important documents” crammed full of things I wouldn’t carry out of a burning building? I should just digitize 90 percent of this box and get rid of it.
What’s my list look like?
For starters, it’s assumed people and pets come before stuff. Those are the most important things to get out of the house.
Second, I have homeowners insurance. Good homeowners insurance. I pay extra to cover more items to a higher degree and for more calamities because if I actually have to use my insurance, I don’t want to be arguing about what something was worth. I want it replaced, if I want it at all.
You should have homeowners or renters insurance, and you should read the policy and what it covers like your life depends on it. Because it kind of does. Everything you own is protected by the words on those papers. That’s worth a few moments of your time.
So accepting that when it all vanishes in the flames I will get plenty of money for new “stuff,” here are the 10 things I don’t want to leave behind.
- My portable hard drive – photos, documents, music, video documentation for insurance
- Love notes from my wife
- Letters I’ve written to my daughter – sealed until she opens them someday
- A folder of insurance documents
- My laptop bag – computer, charger, iPod, and iPad are all inside
- The letters from my grandma
- A photo album with all my concert tickets going back over 20 years
- My wallet
- My phone
- A folder of government-issued IDs (passports, birth certificates and Social Security cards)
What do you notice about this list?
Half of it consists of physical representations of relationships that I could never buy. Letters, notes, photos, tickets. These are irreplaceable personal links to the past. The other half will make it easy to get along until I can rebuild everything else.
What if I happen to have an hour’s notice to gather things and can take another 10 things with me? That optional list looks like this:
- My car
- A suitcase full of clothes (pack it like I’m going on a weeklong trip)
- Chargers for my electronics
- Medications – I don’t have anything critical, which is why it’s not in the first list
- A coat or jacket
- My digital SLR camera
- A box of children’s memorabilia
- My desktop computer
- A box of Christmas ornaments my grandma gave me
- The “hat” that elicited the last big smile from my grandpa that I’d ever see
Again, six things that will make it easier to get on after a fire and four things of sentimental value. I can pack all of this into the trunk of my car and still have half the trunk to spare.
My action plan
Here are my next steps now that I’ve identified the 20 most important things to take with me in a disaster:
- Write the list down and keep it somewhere memorable.
- Gather the 10 most important things and keep them together somewhere close to an exit, ready to go for a quick escape.
- Ask my wife to make the same list and add her things to the pile.
- Make a new insurance documentation video showing all the possessions in the house and put it on the portable hard drive. It’s been years since I’ve done this, plus we’ve moved to a new house.
- Evaluate affordable cloud storage options for backing up my hard drive.
- Share this post with my extended family and encourage them to do the same.
Liz at Chief Mom Officer took Dads Dollars Debt’s story as a call to action and started a blogging chain for others to discuss their history with evacuations and emergency plans. You can read more from those bloggers in the links below.
- Anchor: DadsDollarsDebt – Tubb’s Fire – A Sudden Evacuation
- Anchor Two: Chief Mom Officer – Going Beyond The Emergency Fund-A Harrowing Escape Inspires The Personal Finance Community
- 1: OthalaFehu – Cool As A Cucumber
- 2: The Retirement Manifesto – Am I A Prepper?
- 3: Mrs. Retire to Roots – In Case Of Emergency Follow The Plan
- 4: The Lady In Black – Emergency Preparedness
- 5: The Green Swan – Preparing For The Worst
- 6: Minafi – Minimal Hurricane Preparation
- 7: A Gai Shan Life – Earthquake and disaster preparedness
- 8: The Financial Journeyman – Emergency Preparation: Be Proactive
- 9: John And Jane Doe – Thinking the Worst: Emergency Planning or Fighting the Last War?
- 10: Adventure Rich – Emergency Preparation Up North
- 11: Money Beagle – How Much Would You Replace If You Lost Everything?
- 12: Crispy Doc – Fighting Fire With FI/RE
- 13: She Picks Up Pennies – How Can A Planner Be Unprepared?
- 14: Chronicles Of A Father-Getting Ready for a Natural Disaster
- 15: Rogue Dad MD- Disrupting the Equilibrium
- 16: Unique Gifter-10 Ways To Help Disaster Victims
- 17: SomeRandomGuyOnline-Friday Blog Roundup – Emergency Preparedness Edition
- 18: 99 to 1 Percent: 15 Frugal Ways To Prepare For An Emergency
- 19: I Dream Of FIRE – Your house is burning and you can only save 10 things – what do you choose?
- 20: Full Time Finance – Emergency Preparedness in Place
- 21: Thinking of Someday – Are You Prepared For When An Emergency Occurs?
- 22: My Money Wizard – Are You Mentally (and Financially) Prepared to Lose Everything?
- 23: Wealth Rehab – Start Building Your Emergency Fund Today
- 24: Military Dollar – Emergency Preparedness for Natural, Man-made, and Twitter Disasters