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How to Help in Times of Disaster

Independence Day

We celebrated Independence Day late into the night with a group of friends, as usual this year. What wasn't usual though, was that I got an early morning text the very next day that the home of one of those friends was struck by lightening and had burned down during the night. Everyone got out safely, but all their possessions were lost.

I was shocked at the news. We had just been with them a few hours before, and they had talked of leaving in a few days for their vacation. Now, just a few short hours later, their home, all their clothes, their shoes, their underwear, even their cars, everything was in ashes.

How to help during disasters 2

I immediately got dressed to go over and do... something. I didn't know quite what yet, but I grabbed an ice chest out of the garage and stopped to pick up ice and bottled waters. Some of the fire fighters were still there when I arrived, and I found my friends whom I hugged tightly and tearfully.

They were in shock. It had all happened so fast. Ground shaking lightening, then the smell of smoke, and the sound of smoke detectors beeping, all within a few minutes time. By the time they woke the children and got them out the door (one of the girls in nothing more than a t-shirt and panties), they could see the flames and the smoke billowing from the roof.

More friends began to hear and arrive. We all asked the same question:

"What can we do to help?"

But, as you can imagine, our friends were in no state to think through what they needed. They could barely even fathom what had just happened to them.

When I got home (after not really being able to do anything except offer moral support) I asked for advice from my Smockity Facebook readers, who came through in a big way. It turns out several of them had gone through similar tragedies and had lots of tips on how to help, and also how not to be a burden to, the newly devastated family.

Here are a few of the ways they suggested helping.

How to Help in Times of Disaster

  • See if you can launder any of the salvageable items.

    Here is what one commenter said:

    "The greatest tangible gift we received was from a local laundromat owner. He had us come in & wash what was left of our laundry for free. If someone I knew had a fire, I would either offer to wash laundry or give them laundry baskets, soap, rolls of quarters & gift cards to replace some immediate necessities."

  • Don't assume the kids need to be whisked away.

    One commenter shared this tragic story:

    "We lost everything we owned to a fire when I was 9 years old. Two weeks later, my dad died as a result of the fire. I needed to be with my mom and siblings--being separated from them was terrifying to me. Well meaning relatives tried to keep us kids 'out of my mom's hair.' "

  • Don't donate unneeded items.

    Here's how one person shared that this was a burden:

    "My house burned down in June of 2012. It was hard, so hard. People brought bags and bags of clothes, but we didn't have anywhere to put them, and I couldn't go through them (PTSD). My best friend came over one day and sat there with me; she went thru every bag, every piece of clothing, held it up and I would say yay or nay. Then, she took all the nay away."

    Here's how others put it:

    "The community gave a trailer full of stuff, like clothes and furniture. A lot of it smelled of animal urine and couldn't be used. The family then had to not only deal with the fire, but also figuring out how to get rid of a trailer full of unusable clothes and furniture."

    "I was a teen when we had our house fire. A lot of the donated clothes were really outdated, and I remember being embarrassed about how unfashionable I had to dress until my parents could get me some new things."

  • Donate cash or gift cards.

    This advice was repeated several times from those who had been through tragedies themselves.

    Donated cash or gift cards allows the recipient to purchase for themselves the items they most need. Or if they wish, as in the case of my friends, they sent a volunteer to Target with their girls and some donated gift cards to buy pajamas, underwear, socks, shirts, shorts, and toiletries. The girls took pride in being able to pick these items out for themselves, and it gave them a distraction from the burned rubble at home.

  • Set up a Facebook page to coordinate efforts.

    Add any friends who may want to help. This eliminates the situation where the family in crisis is answering the very same questions over and over again.

    All needs, meal sign ups, questions, concerns, etc. can be posted in this group so everyone can stay informed.

  • Ask (and coordinate on the Facebook page dedicated to the disaster) when the family needs help removing salvageable items.

    How to help during disasters

    At some point, after the insurance adjuster has inventoried the contents of the home, the family may need help saving photos and other items that can be restored.

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    In our case, several friends helped organize the things the family wanted to save. We spent the day working together, and then we all circled up and held hands for a prayer of thanksgiving that our friends lives were spared. After that we all sat and ate and laughed together with those friends. Laughter through tears and tragedy. Beauty from ashes. It was simply beautiful.

  • Consider donating items volunteers will use.

    You can see from the above photos that items like a canopy, bottled water, trash bags, and storage bins were very useful in our case.

Have you ever been through a tragedy, like a house fire, or helped someone through one? What would you add to this list?

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  1. Courtney says:

    FEMA has a bunch of resources on emergency preparedness and response that are geared toward kids. I look forward to receiving their newsletter each month. https://www.fema.gov/children-and-disasters

  2. Gas cards were the most helpful thing we received when our house burned down, I spent so much time driving around to coordinate things. Restaurant gift card were also a godsend, it may seem frivolous but a night out as a family normalized things for our kids and helped our state of mind tremendously. And don’t forget this family in the future, it takes a long time to recover from a fire. Our fire was in September and although we had housing, furniture, and clothes by December we were so financially drained that we couldn’t buy gifts for our kids.

  3. Chrissy says:

    One thing that is less practical is to collect any photos friends and family have of them. Particularly of the kids and their wedding. Every time I think of the possibility of losing our home to a fire my heart hurts at the thought of losing all of the pictures of our babies. In fact, I keep a box of favorite photos at my mom’s…just in case!