Take Pictures While You Rebuild
This last week was the 10th anniversary of the fire that effected thousands of people here in Southern California including our family. I was at my mom's and we were trying to troubleshoot something that was going wrong with the AC in the house that was rebuilt after the fire. She got out a large scrapbook that was filled exclusively with pictures of the house during construction. We were able to go through the book and look at what was inside of the walls to help with the issue we were having.
Although we don't look through the book a lot, through the years we've looked at that book several times and we are always grateful the book exists. This weekend my mom said she probably would never have taken so many pictures, but because I live 120 miles away she went to the house every night and took lots and lots of pictures of everything and then emailed them to me so I'd have something to talk to the contractor about the next day (and there was always lots to talk about).
This made me think that it would be a great tip to tell survivors to take pictures of everything, especially before insulation and drywall is installed so you can see where those pipes and wires are once they're covered up. It will be an invaluable resource later!
My House Burnt Down in a Fire... Now What?
We all wish there was a simple answer to this question. After a loss there are a dozen things that all need to be done at once in addition to the full life you had before the fire. In reality, the best first thing to do is to come to the realization that you are not an insurance expert and be open to learning.
Once you are ready to learn, find a great resource. It is our hope that you can use our website as that resource. Not only do we have a great, free eBook "A Survivor's Guide to Insurance" we also have lots of other information that can be of help such as the Handout section.
To better answer the question, I will pick 5 things I think are of most help early on in the recovery process.
- The Ultimate Goal is to gather enough information to value your claim as accurately and thoroughly as possible and to collect all of the money owed to you by the insurance company.
- Get a copy of your insurance policy and start getting familiar with it by reading it over and over again.
- Start a claim diary where you write down all of the interactions you're having with your insurance company and others related to the recovery process (government officials, contractors, etc.)
- Start your personal property inventory now.
- Take the money from the insurance company. Money that comes to you is not to be considered payment in full unless that fact is explicitly stated in the paperwork you receive with the check. DO take the money, but DO NOT sign a release on the spot, including a Proof of Loss. If a release or a Proof of Loss is presented to you, take it with you and read it over thoroughly before signing. Even better would be to take it to an insurance expert for review.
Emotional Recovery After Natural Disasters: How to Get Back to Normal Life
Today on my way to work I heard an interesting segment on NPR about rituals. One sentence out of the broadcast reminded me of a book I read, Emotional Recovery After Natural Disasters. They were talking about a study done recently on how rituals were important in our lives and the one sentence that stood out said that completing rituals after a loss can make a person feel better (which everyone facing a large loss needs). It was similar to advice given in this very good book by Ilana Singer who started counseling disaster survivors following the 1991 Oakland Hills fire.
It is a book I highly recommend to every disaster survivor. Even if you can't face reading an entire book yourself you can assign one of those really helpful friends and family members to read it for you and tell you about it over lunch (or a series of lunches). It will help you and your friend both understand what you're going through.
WANTED - Penny Estes for fraud against Wildfire Survivors
When rebuilding be very careful about who you hire to rebuild. After our fire we heard of contractors that were running off with people's money (like the below article). To avoid that situation, we used a Construction Escrow service that held our insurance money in escrow, reviewed the contract with our contractor, did a check on all of their licensing and insurance and then only paid for goods and services that were complete and installed/constructed on our job site.
There is currently no indication that the person named below has moved on to other areas, but people like this prey on disaster survivors who are in a very bad spot. Please be aware that this can happen and if you happen to see this person around get in touch with the Santa Barbara County District Attorney (phone numbers listed below).
Wanted poster can be found here:
The article is included in full below, but can also be found on the front page at http://www.arson.org/
WANTED - Penny Estes
Santa Barbara residents are all too familiar with the devastating fires that occur in our area. The Tea Fire began on November 13, 2008 and destroyed 210 homes after burning 1,940 acres. The Jesusita Fire began on May 9, 2009 and destroyed 80 homes, damaged 15 others and burned 8,733 acres. The people and families that lost their homes were devastated.
Penny “Penn” Estes was an alleged contractor who took advantage of the vulnerability of numerous victims of the Tea Fire and Jesusita Fire by promising to rebuild their homes using “green” building material that Estes claimed was fire resistant, cheaper than traditional building materials and good for the environment. Estes operated under her corporation name of Green Building America (GBA). It was discovered that Estes was not a licensed contractor and her corporation, Green Building America had been suspended and was not authorized to do business in California for at least 7 years. Her modus operandi would be to host gatherings and invite fire victims where she would gain the confidence of the fire victims by playing on their vulnerability and desperation for things to be normal again. Shortly thereafter she would promise to rebuild their homes in an unrealistic time frame, take most, if not all of the victim’s insurance proceeds and other building funds and then abandon the project. In one instance, Estes took in excess of $500,000.00 from a victim/homeowner (a local beloved family practice physician) and all he had to show for it was a concrete slab. This victim stated, “I lost my home once to the fire, and then I lost it again to Estes”. Another victim paid over $440,000.00 of a $455,000.00 contract and had a home that was less than 50% complete when Estes abandoned the project. Other victims were even less fortunate. They paid large sums of money to Estes and never had a single shovel full of dirt turned over. A number of the victims that were interviewed stated very plainly that that they simply wanted to be back in their homes and Estes promised them and assured them over and over that everything was on schedule. “We wanted to believe her because we simply wanted our lives to be normal again after the fire took everything from us. She (Estes) used that against us.”
Estes, on the other hand, was living the high life. A review of bank records show that Estes was using the money she misappropriated for travel, restaurants, shopping sprees, trips to the salon and numerous other expenditures that were in no way related to the rebuilding of the victim’s homes. A conservative estimate reveals that Estes illegally obtained close to 4.8 million dollars from at least a dozen fire victims.
An intensive 9 month investigation was conducted by Santa Barbara County District Attorney Investigators and a Special Agent from the Franchise Tax Board which resulted in the filing of a 24 count felony complaint against Estes and a warrant was issued for her arrest with bail set at $2,000,000.00. Estes was charged with Grand Theft, Diversion of Construction Funds, Tax Evasion and numerous other counts. In addition, special allegations were added to the complaint alleging that she defrauded victims of a natural disaster.
If you have any information on Estes or were a victim of Estes or Green Building America, you are encouraged to contact District Attorney Investigator Norma Hansen or Deputy District Attorney Gary Gemberling at 805 568-2300.