After catastrophe, lessons from lives rebuilt

Some who have lost everything to storms, fires, or earthquakes learned the value of people - as well as photos and personal files.

Mimi Doe was only 10 years old in August 1969 when hurricane Camille, a Category 5 storm, pounded the Mississippi Gulf Coast. It leveled her family's beachfront home in Pass Christian, Miss. In an instant, the antebellum-style house with white pillars was gone. So was everything in it - family antiques and heirlooms, legal papers and documents, toys and photo albums.

"We had to start over," says Mrs. Doe, now an author in Concord, Mass.

Those five words sum up the huge task facing hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast residents in the wake of hurricane Katrina. Stripped of houses and belongings, they face daunting questions: Where will we live? How do we replace possessions? How can we rebuild homes and lives?

Doe and others who have come through harrowing experiences and sustained huge losses know firsthand the severity of the challenge. But they have also learned that out of devastation and destruction, ashes and floods, can rise a new life - often radically different, but one with new perspectives and reordered priorities.

"People who have had this forced on them often make changes," says Al Siebert, a psychologist specializing in resiliency. "In the process of doing this, they discover a better version of themselves. They find different skills and abilities."

Doe's family began a new life in Escanaba, Mich. Her parents built a very simple house on Lake Michigan totally unlike their former 120-year-old home.

"We never really mourned the loss of things, except for photographs," Doe says. "It was a terribly sad thing, of course. We talked about certain things we would miss, but we sort of moved on."

Not all of their losses could be listed on insurance claims. Doe didn't miss her great-grandparents' portraits, the crystal chandelier, or her canopy bed, but she did miss the South. "It was more about missing that lifestyle," she says, "that wonderful, quirky, rhythmic Southern way of living soulfully - a friendly, open, slower-paced life. I did not complete a Southern childhood."

She also missed her friends, some of whom were killed in the storm. "The overriding life impact that hurricane Camille had on me and my three siblings and my parents was the idea that what really matters is not things, but the people in our lives - our family, our friends, and our faith. That's something we can always hold onto. Things are transient. Things come, things go. None of us is overly attached to things."

Insured, but no way to rebuild

For James and Maureen Halderman, life started over at 4:30 one July morning in 1992. A huge earthquake sent their house in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., plummeting 20 feet. The couple's three children were trapped for four hours. Finally freed, they jumped in the car, still in their pj's. As they drove off, the house blew up.

Their new life began in Cleveland, where they stayed with Mrs. Halderman's brother. Although they had earthquake insurance, they discovered that they could not collect unless they rebuilt on the same spot. "There wasn't a spot to rebuild on," Halderman says.

With the $7,000 they received for the loss of their personal property, they made a down payment on a house in Cleveland. Relatives gave them used household items. They bought clothes at thrift shops.

For Halderman, as for others who lose everything, one of the biggest challenges was replacing important papers. "That was terrible," she says. "Birth certificates, Social Security cards, my nursing license - everything. I tried to get a driver's license, and I couldn't prove who I was."

Today she keeps a metal lock box under the bed for important documents. Her brother stores copies in another lock box.

The couple also devised an emergency plan. They staged fire drills so the children would know what to do. They also store canned food, bottled water, and powdered milk in a basement room. Other emergency supplies include three sets of clothes per person, a camp stove, candles, and oil lanterns.

Despite all their preparedness, they maintain a normal life. "I'm kind of easygoing," says Halderman, a nurse manager at a retirement center in Cleveland. "My whole philosophy is, live for the day. Always tell people that you love them."

Pre-tornado, post-tornado

Jim March's life - and perspective - changed forever at 4 p.m. on a July afternoon in 1992, when a tornado hit Westminster, Md. His two sons, ages 4 months and 23 months, were napping upstairs. The roof blew off, and the upstairs walls collapsed. The children were thrown into the yard - unhurt.

"I always think of things pre-tornado and post-tornado," says Mr. March, a federal administrative law judge. "None of the material things really mattered once we found out that the children were fine. The stuff is replaceable."

The family rebuilt the house on the same foundation. Even after they moved back in, though, tornado-related details consumed their time.

"It was a good year or so that this was really affecting my life," March says, noting that they lost many documents. "It is an arduous process, trying to think of everything you had."

To keep track of possessions, Ron Cuccaro, CEO of Adjusters International, recommends taking photos of a house and its contents. "Pictures are more valuable than an inventory," he says. Insurance companies want proof of what you've lost. He keeps a set of photos at work.

He has another piece of advice: Insure your home for its replacement cost, not just the depreciated value.

Fallout from a wildfire

Adequate insurance helped Sandra Millers Younger and her husband start over after the Cedar Fire in San Diego on Oct. 25, 2003. It was the biggest wildfire in recorded California history. It destroyed 2,400 homes with 15 fatalities, 12 in Wildcat Canyon, where they live.

The couple had little warning. As the fire approached, they threw pictures and negatives into a laundry basket, grabbed their bird and two dogs, and drove through curtains of flame and smoke.

When they returned, their two-story house was a pile of ashes and buckled metal. Nothing was salvageable.

They'd lost everything "except our car, our animals, things at our offices, and clothes at the dry cleaners," Mrs. Younger says. "But we had loving family and friends who came out of the woodwork to help us. It was really humbling."

Two months ago, they finally moved back into their rebuilt house. "It's just a long process," Younger says.

"One of the things you learn when you lose everything is you don't need as much as you thought you did," she says. "You learn that you are not your stuff."

They'd always stored their most important papers in a safe deposit box. Now they have centralized the things that are important. "What's really important? The pictures, the pictures, the pictures. Little mementos that your kids have given you over the years. Gifts you've given each other. That's all people care about."

Younger concludes that "you wouldn't wish this on anyone, and you can't ever say you're glad it happened. But if you're open to it, there is opportunity even in tragedy. It's an opportunity to look at life in a different way and be grateful for what you may have taken for granted. The best first step you can take toward recovery is being grateful for what you have instead of being bitter for what you lost."

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