It was a late Sunday afternoon in early November when my Mom called me with the news. “There’s been a fire. Your grandfather is fine, but he’s lost everything. His apartment building caught fire and there’s not much, if anything left.”
At the time, my then 89-year-old grandfather was living in a retirement community in Cabot, Pa., a rural community just over 30 miles north of Pittsburgh. While slower in his steps, but still sharp in mind, when the fire occurred on the third floor of his apartment building, my grandfather had the sense of mind to leave his possessions behind and proceed to the stairwell to get out. With obvious concern for what was happening around him, he and several other elderly and less mobile residents literally sat down on the stair steps and scooted down on their backsides step by step three stories to safety.
By the time he and others got to the bottom floor, they had enough strength to get themselves up and walk out to where emergency rescue personnel and building staff were arriving to help them and tackle the all-consuming blaze. At the end of the day, all 137 residents of his apartment building survived the devastating fire with no injuries or fatalities. By itself, that metric was a miracle that left local responders, regional media and residents in awe.
So, what made the difference?
All of the facility’s residents had been coached and prepped about what to do in the event of an emergency. For them and all of the residents’ families, those efforts paid off tremendously. The only losses that day were the possessions of 29 residents – one of those being my grandfather, who literally only had the clothes on his back as to what he had left in the world.
Losing everything in a fire, a flood, tornado or whatever is always devastating. There is certainly the physical shock of what’s occurred and what you no longer have, but there is also the emotional trauma that goes with a sudden and monumental loss. My grandfather certainly felt that the rest of his life and I’ve thought about that a lot lately, especially after seeing the news footage of the devastating fire at the National Museum of Brazil this past weekend.
While there were no fatalities, “the loss to Brazilian science, history and culture was incalculable.” An archive of 20 million items – the majority irreplaceable – was consumed by a fire that, firefighters now report, burned as crews did not have enough water to try to put the blaze down. It was also revealed that pleas by museum staff and curators to better protect collected treasures from harm had been consistently ignored by any number of people and government offices who could have made a difference. A nation’s history of itself, the region around it as well as the world were wiped out in a matter of a few evening hours. Heartbreaking may be the most apt word to describe the public reaction to the loss. I can only imagine how we in the U.S. would feel if one of the Smithsonian museums were destroyed by a similar event and our science, history and culture were left to be smoldering ash.
Once you lose something like that it’s gone forever. No new rendering of whatever the lost items might be will ever capture the charm, history or content of the original.
While there is a world of difference in possession value between my grandfather’s items and those of a country’s national museum, I am still wrestling with the question: What does preparedness cost?
For my grandfather, it was the insurance that he and the retirement community had that allowed him to recover and move forward with his life. As important as those policies were (and they didn’t cover everything), it was the emergency drills, the hall captains and building staff that he and his fellow residents had that saved their lives. While my grandfather would pass away a year afterward from cancer, having that extra year with him was priceless for my family.
I’m sure there are some type of insurance policies that Brazil possesses that will cover some of what they lost, but it is the steps they didn’t take: the pleas that were ignored from museum staff, curators and even the public to be better stewards of these priceless items, and the lack of time and resources they put into preparing for the unimaginable that will be the costliest of burdens to carry. It was a national abdication of responsibility. But that is not something unique to Brazil. It’s a problem here as well.
The New York Times’ Aug. 31 article “In Quake-Prone California, Alarm at Scant Insurance Coverage” gives a devastating preview of the prospective costs that Golden State residents, insurers and national taxpayers might experience when the “BIG ONE” finally hits. As jaw-dropping as those prospective losses might be, it is a fact that only 13 percent of California households have earthquake insurance. That is 34,605,842 people – 87 percent of California’s population – (California’s population is 39,776,830 people) that is at maximum risk.
The coverage statistics for flood insurance are not much better, with a majority of U.S. state residents not having any type of flood coverage at all.
The insurance gap that FEMA, and in particular Deputy Administrator for Resilience Dan Kaniewski, has become so vocal about is very real. For some people, the gap between what your insurance policies cover and what your recovery costs are can either be a fissure that can be adequately patched and covered by savings or be a bottomless Grand Canyon of debt from which you never climb out. The decisions and risks associated with that gap are owned by each of us as individuals. And anyone thinking that a FEMA check is going to cover all of their losses from an epic disaster is in for a rude awakening. While it is certainly within FEMA’s responsibilities to help communities prepare, respond and recover from any and all threats, individual solvency, resilience and preparedness are personal responsibilities that no one can ever afford to ignore.
It’s a lesson that was imparted to me in personal terms nearly a dozen years ago by a near-tragedy. And one that still leaves painful and costly consequences every day around the world in terms of lost lives, cultures, communities, economies and solvency.
Because in the end, preparedness is ultimately priceless, and it always will be.
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