Self Care

Things I Wish I’d Known Before Evacuating My Home

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After the fire our downstairs neighbors could walk through to the next flat through their living room wall.

Guest Post by Alex Leviton

On August 27, 2012, at about 2.33pm, I was in bed, sick and trying to recover, ignoring the weird barbecue smell wafting in from nearby and writing in my journal about how a confluence of events – including meditating like a motherfucker for six months straight – had culminated in this serene and calm harmony, an inner peace where nothing could ruffle my feathers. Then, my roommate Jen walked in.

“I think our house is on fire.”

Our house was on fire.

More specifically: our neighbor’s electrical system in their garage, the walls butting up against my bedroom (I lost about 80% of my possessions) and the roof (the asbestos-laden ceiling collapsed onto the bed a few minutes after I evacuated).

Our landlords told us it was our responsibility to remove all of our possessions. We told them sure, as long as they removed the toxic asbestos first (The SF Tenants Union is a lifesaver).

If you or someone you know might lose your house in a fire, here are six things I would have wanted to know:

* Do an evacuation practice run with your entire family or household. What will you take, if anything? Where would the cat hide? Practice the shit out of this until you can do it in 5-10 seconds. In the chaos of an emergency, your muscle memory will astound you.

* Pack important papers (car registration, birth certificate, journals) and medicine in an easy-to-carry case, or leave them somewhere safe if you can plan ahead.

* Have an easy-to-carry bag packed with easy, comfortable clothes (t-shirts, soft pants, undies, an outer layer). If you are of a certain age and body type: Pack. A. Fucking. Bra. You’ll be in survival/triage mode for at least 3-10 days, so you’ll want to focus your energy on getting food and shelter, not whether you can sit comfortably at the Red Cross for an hour in too-tight jeans.

* Do you have homeowners or renters insurance, and is it up to date?

* Who is your designated point person in a safe place who can verify everyone is safe, make necessary calls on your behalf, etc?

* Do you have sturdy shoes next to your exit spot?

Where the smoke first curled in.


The higher likelihood is that you won’t lose your own house in a fire, but you might be close to or know someone who’s lost their house. A few tips:

*Instead of saying the dreaded ‘Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help!’, just, you know, help.

* If you don’t know them well or know how to help, donate to the Red Cross or an organization in their area.

* Send messages of understanding and empathy. One of my favorite ‘gifts’ was a poem and message from a friend in North Carolina.

* Offer a place to stay if you can. Over the next 66 days of being ‘unhomed,’ I stayed with probably a dozen friends, and these forced sleepover parties are now treasured memories.

* Offer a space to talk or vent.

*Send meal vouchers or gift cards if they’re in financial need. One similarly height-challenged friend threw me a shopping party in her closet. Eight years on, I think of that day whenever I put on any of those clothes.

* If you’re close, think about sending or giving a special treat, especially for kids (an overnighted replacement Paddington from my godfamily was the bestest thing ever, and I haven’t been 8 years old for a long, long time).

The first week or two is often one long rush of adrenaline and survival, so know they’ll be in triage for weeks and most likely months after the excitement has died down. After the shock wears off, understand that week #3 or 4 might be even harder.

Alex Leviton is a former Lonely Planet author and startup director who now teaches creativity using Applied Improv, including how to build a creative foundation to weather the shit life throws us. Her next online class starts Wed, Sept 16. Scholarships available.

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