From the Other Publisher


Karen Portugal York

A message to rebuilding professionals: Dealing with fire survivors

This column was written in October 2003. As a survivor of the Malibu ’93 fire during which I lost my home and everything in it, and as the cofounder of Malibu’s Operation Recovery, an organization of 250 other survivor families, I can speak with some authority on dealing with people like us. I have listed some recommendations below that I hope you find useful.

Slow Down

Survivors are hearing with only half their brains. Not to say they are not intelligent, but they are dealing with so many necessities and details, all at the same time, that it is difficult for them to remember and comprehend everything at once.

Be Patient

Unlike your other customers, we survivors are not repairing or replacing our homes because we want to. We have not been sitting around budgeting and planning for these changes. All at once, we need to be making millions of decisions based on limited, if any, information. We don’t know exactly what we need or want or even how much money we have to get the work done.

We’re sometimes weepy (men too) and sometimes you may find yourselves the target of our anger, suspicion and impatience. We’re recovering and we’re overwhelmed. We may appear to be OK, but we’re probably not. And know that our ability to deal with things varies from day to day.

Don’t Tell Us That We Should be Happy With the Opportunity to Have Something New-New Things

Yes. It’s true. After our fire, I sat there in a beautiful new home and am happy. Now. But people who said that to me when I was confronted with the loss of a home filled with precious mementos and memories did not make me feel better. What I did want to hear was that there was help available to assist me in re-establishing my home (not my house or my things).

For us, the replacement process is not carried out with a “shopping spree” mentality. Rather, it is an overwhelming chore to be accomplished one day at a time. Our energy is spent on avoiding confusion, angst, sadness and panic (remembering what we have, recalling what we lost, noting what we need, what we want, what we can afford….) and dealing with the myriad of choices that we face. In the beginning we try to focus on the practical and the necessary and even then we make some pretty stupid decisions. Later we will deal with aesthetics and may even begin to enjoy the process.

Prove That We Can Trust You

With all the needs, decisions and arrangements we feel very vulnerable to being taken advantage of. Be prepared to present your credentials, experience and references and don’t be insulted by our need to assure ourselves of your competence. Provide us with this information-in writing-even before we ask for it and before your first visit.

Provide Complete Information

We need complete information on choices and on costs. For example, when my house burned down, I had no idea what anything would cost or even that kitchen sinks came not only in a variety of styles and colors, but varied in quality and price. To me, a sink was a sink and it probably was already there when I purchased my last home. In my entire life, I had not given two minutes thought to choosing a sink. This same thing was true for everything from heating systems to doorknobs to grout colors.

Assume We Know Nothing

Being a professional woman, my contractors often assumed that I was better informed than I was and didn’t ask me detailed or “little” questions (if they did, I didn’t hear or understand them because I didn’t know what they were talking about). I must have come across like I knew what I was doing but I didn’t. This scenario made for some very unpleasant situations and nasty surprises for everyone.

Avoid Surprises

Of course, some of us may know quite a bit. While you don’t want to be condescending, you do want to make sure that your customer understands the most basic aspects of the services provided. For example: Does the customer need to be on-site during the service? Is clean up included in the cost or is there an additional charge? How long will the job take? If materials selected and purchased by the customer are required, when should they be delivered and where? Exactly what are the specifications of the materials needed? Is the customer to order anything else which is necessary to the installation process? Who will provide security?

Write It Down

Make sure that you take plenty of time to explain your services, allocating as much time as necessary to this do this well. Leave or send a simple record of your conversation. When meeting again, review services, costs, what’s included and excluded, etc. before moving on to the next step. If there are changes, note these down and document again and leave or send another record of your conversation.

Keep Talking

Keep communication lines open. After sending a bid or report, call to review and answer questions.

Define the Payment Program

We are usually working with money from our insurance policies. Their and our requirements mean that we have to carefully account for and plan our cash flow. Work with us by asking about and planning the payment schedule in advance. What are your requirements? Who will sign off on the quality of the completed work? What proof of inspection do banks or insurance companies or municipalities require? What down payments (in progress) are required and when? How will continuing invoices will be paid? How will payment be documented? How will subcontractors be paid, by whom and how will you document receipt of payment? etc.

And There’s More

We are grateful for your professionalism and your expertise. We need it. You are part of our solution and you will be the ones helping to reconstruct our future. Try to find ways to be helpful. Be flexible, be patient and be kind.