Fire and Water—How Can We Cope?

Sitting outside on the back patio of my condo in late October, shivering under the weight of two sweaters and a jacket trying to finish work for a client on my computer, in the waning afternoon on a Friday I decided I had to leave the home I’d saved years to buy.

My partner and I had been sleeping on floors and mattresses of friends and family, housesitting, and finally tent camping in the East Bay California hills.

In the campground where we slept each night after finishing work at home, trees grew more barren and the ground grew colder. Each morning, car after car pulled out of the park, leaving only a caravan of gypsies, and two men in a truck who arrived at two a.m. every night after work to sleep for a few hours.

There was no alternative left. I called our homeowner insurance company and let them know we wanted to take them up on their offer of three months rent for a temporary place to live. I was quickly issued a bank card at Wells Fargo bank to use for expenses.

We went home to feed our cats. Then taking only the clothes on our backs, some jewelry and shoes, a laptop computer on loan from a relative, and an address book, drove to a nearby motel.

We’d fought for almost an entire year with our condominium Board about the creeping water damage, mold, yeast and other fungi growing in our unit. We’d gotten sicker and sicker, not understanding why—or in the end able to figure out any way to halt the damage to ourselves and our property.

Our condo Board and its managers played every dirty trick you could imagine, from covering up what they knew about the damage and potential health problems in our unit, to telling us the wrong time or illegally holding closed meetings with us—where they sat granite faced and responded to our pleas with silence.

The Board continued to aim sprinklers high up at the worn siding of our units even after we’d told them that experts, theirs and ours, had agreed that’s where the water leakage inside was coming from. Even after the rainy season came their sprinklers continued watering our siding.

The Board even took off our siding in mid-winter, one member laughing about whether a rain storm was coming or not.

The rain did come. Our unit flooded, ruining everything that was left inside.

At that point we were forced to bring a lawsuit against our homeowner Board. It turned out to be a five-year lawsuit.

Our lawsuit benefited everyone else who lived there in our complex—but was one we got no money from, only the remediation of our unit. The Board left our place in shambles inside for us to to renovate.

Unknown to us until the discovery period of our lawsuit, our homeowner Board while refusing to put in a claim to their insurer for our unit did put in expensive claims for water damage to their own properties, ending with an absurd claim that local kids were flooding condo units by aiming hoses water under their front door.

That set in motion the ultimate disaster for the whole place. The condo Board’s insurance company dumped the entire condo complex “for making too many claims”.

As a result, all homeowners in our complex had to pay exorbitant fees for a “bad driver” type of homeowner’s insurance from an out-of-state company which could choose whether or not it felt like paying any claims made against it.

Towards the end of our lawsuit all of us who owned units there had to scramble to pay tens of thousands of dollars for re-siding all 100+ units. All the buildings had ill-maintained outer walls that had to be replaced.

What happens when we lose our home?

That depends on your insurance company and what’s in your home. Our company, Amica, was wonderful. All the agents and their attorney were helpful. I could never thank them enough.

After only one week that was spent in the nearby hotel where we could finally breath deeply and not regret it, and we salvaged a few of our clothes by using Clorox in the laundry room washing them over and over, we were offered an apartment in a city several miles away.

Our insurance company hired another company to provide us with three months of basic furniture, bedding and dishes in our new apartment. They even provided pictures to hang on the wall.

Given our destitute situation, this company extended payment for the apartment for an extra month while we struggled to get back on our feet.

We had made a common mistake of only insuring the value of bigger things we owned, not thinking about how the costs of little things like spices, tools, or office supplies could add up to a lot more money.

After looking at all the things we’d left behind, Amica pretty much counted our policy as totally maxed out, long before they reached the actual value of all we had.

In addition we had not known that both of us being self-employed, we would have needed to purchase business insurance to cover the losses of our home office contents and equipment.

We spent a great deal of our initial insurance money at IKEA, Best Buy, and a local drugstore and Office Depot to replace all the office equipment and supplies we needed.

Getting back into business as fast as possible was vital to our survival. After our move we lost clients, many not knowing where we’d moved, or not hearing from us because we no longer had their phone numbers, going elsewhere.

We wasted a chunk of the money paying ‘green cleaners’ to try to salvage our clothes and electronics. The results were dismal. We couldn’t wear the clothes or keep the TV, stereos, etc. without wheezing or having headaches.

One by one we let things go. The last one being a generous birthday gift of a beautiful new $500 custom-made purple and yellow wetsuit only worn twice.

Ways to cope with a home-loss disaster

Being book lovers (one of us a librarian for ten years and the other a PhD) we headed for our local library. After getting new cards we scoured the shelves for help.

I went to the business section and found Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad Poor Dad series.

Those books led to our going to free day-long wealth seminars where entrepreneurs gave talks about ways to make money. More importantly they handed out free lunches to attendees. Most importantly they used to feature one inspirational speaker who, like us, started with nothing in his pockets, and managed to build something.

Skeptical of most offers at these shows, I used my credit card, after much inner debate, to buy an offer to learn about stock investing. That, along with the help of some friends and family members, played a big part of how we re-built our lives.

More importantly, at the library the Virtual Reality (VR) Geographer came across Jim Collins’ best-selling book, From Good to Great. She came back to our apartment one day and explained her ideas of how people survived crises like what we were going through.

As I recall she said there were three ways to cope with a disaster:

  1. Give up and cave in and end up worse off
  2. Try to get our old lives back, or
  3. Aim higher, do things differently and do better

We both agreed we wanted the third option. We wanted to do better and become better people.

However, there was a lot of pull from the second option – a desire to try to get back our old lives. Now, seventeen years later I struggle with this pull as I move on.

Back after we sorted through the chaos that was left in our home after we abandoned it and the HOA flooded it by taking off all the siding during a rainstorm, we spent a week sorting through the damp, stinking debris in hazmat suits, gloves and face masks.

We used our insurance money and credit cards to pay a remediation company to haul off to the dump every thing that was a total loss. We also had the remediation company vacuum  and store some moldy items in about fifty sealed cardboard boxes.

Both of us were life-long writers, with quantities of published and unpublished diaries, stories and articles, poems and books we wanted to keep. We had records, tapes, CDs, photos, letters, and childhood things as well. We hoped to be able to make copies of everything later.

But those “things” have been a huge weight to carry around for over seventeen years now.

We’ve sluffed things off over the years as we managed to see which things we could live without and which we truly feel the need to take the time and effort to salvage.

About twelve of those boxes are left, stored outside our current home. Right before the Northern California fire storms this year, I promised myself my six boxes will be gone by the end of this year. I realized this has to be a priority before I can fully recover from my losses.

Still, what’s even more difficult to leave behind is the resentment of how my things were lost to me. Life isn’t fair. We all know that, but when other people are clearly at fault, it can make one crazy.

The vulnerability of survivors

Back when the VR Geographer and I were talking about trying to come back from our losses as better people than we were before, I recalled a horrifying story by another mold survivor I’d come across online.

This guy said he’d had a home wrecked by mold in an Eastern state. His wife and children became very ill. He went on to show that without being aware of it, he’d chosen the option that led towards ending up even worse off than before.

When he contacted a government inspector to inspect his place, that inspector asked him for a bribe of what I seem to remember was less than $100. The guy said “no”. Then he related that he’d spent months battling to get the state government to fire this inspector.

As he fought this battle over $100, he and his family lost their home and moved to a state in the West where they wound up on welfare, broke, and still very ill. At the end of his story he was still writing letters and calling officials of the state he’d moved away from over a year ago.

In defense of thus guy’s terrible priorities, I fully understand the stress mold from water damage puts on our bodies and how badly it affects our thinking.

I suspect that smoke and toxic volatile organic compounds generated off of fires could result in the same issues for some of us.

But something deeper happens when we survive events that we consider “disasters”.

The fact that some thing we could never ever have conceived of happening did happen to us or to others makes us vulnerable to fears of a similar or even worse thing happening.

We are right to feel that way. Often one disaster comes on the heels of another. It can seem like the pull of one door closing in our lives opens up other doors that bring in more misery.

Sometimes there are reasons for this we can easily see.

For example, the reason many victims of con men get conned one or even multiple times after the first time is that con men sell or trade lists of their “marks”.

Victims of such scams, having lost money, are more likely to have no recourse but to accept offers that, if they had more money they would never have looked at.

It’s vital to rely on every bit of gut instinct we have after a disaster to sort out what to do, who to rely on and who not to. This is when I strongly recommend turning to trusted friends for advice and give yourself time before making big changes in your life.

Ofen trying to get our old lives back only leads to making the same mistakes twice.

Likewise, it’s crucial not to get bogged down in shame, guilt, or resentment.

Resentment against others who have failed us is good to feel when it enables us to fight for changes for the better.

But using resentment against others to avoid the hard work of self-reflection or the humiliation of feeling utterly powerless and/or betrayed will only overwhelm ourselves in the end.

Battling self-pity and resentment is a lifelong task for some of us. But if we try, we can learn to accept unacceptable things and let them go.

As a friend said to me when I complained of suffering from the blanket of smoke over the entire the Bay Area,

“We only have this day—and I’m really grateful I have this day and all that I do have right now.”


#1 Karen J Hoyle on 10.17.17 at 4:19 pm

This was very interesting, but I am pleased that you said, ” But if we try, we can learn to accept unacceptable things and let them go.” That is amazing considering all that happened to you two. It sure was a bad time for you two

#2 Karen J Hoyle on 10.17.17 at 4:20 pm

Great article!

#3 Raoul Martinez on 10.28.17 at 6:40 pm

Your philosophy about coping with such unrelenting unfair experiences impresses me. I’m left with the impression you and or partner have benefited from them. RAOUL

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