On a scorching day in February 2014 my wife, our 7-month-old son and I stood looking at the smouldering rubble that was once our home.
We had absolutely no idea what lay ahead for us.
Today I’m going to share with you what happened over the next 12 months, in the hope that it might give some hard-won advice to the 1,800-plus households who are facing their ‘day one’ right now.
One Week On: Kind People Will Send You Junk
Liz came back from the post office with a trolley full of stuff:
Strangers sent heartfelt letters, gift vouchers, brand new clothes and toys.
Yet among the many packages we received there was one that really ‘stood out’:
Someone had sent us what looked like a wooden carving.
They’d attached a scribbled note around the base with a lacker-band that read:
“This beautiful piece of art has been sitting in our storeroom gathering dust for years … and we’d like you to have it”.
“Is it just me, or is this thing kind of … suggestive?” asked Liz, holding it out in front of her.
“Well, it’s a wooden knob, honey.”
And history repeats: relief workers have told me recently that some fire-affected communities have makeshift rubbish dumps for the junk that people have sent to fire victims.
That being said, it’s likely the first bits of mail fire victims will likely receive will floor them: the Red Cross sent us a cash cheque, and a hand-knitted ‘trauma teddy’ for our son.
Makes me tear up just thinking about it.
And then there was the junk mail …
Two Weeks On: Bad People Will Try and Take Advantage of You
We had someone (who’d clearly read Rich Dad, Poor Dad too many times) who dropped leaflets into our mailbox, offering to buy our property on the cheap.
There were also leaflets offering short-term loans.
You see, the smell of smoke is like perfume to payday predators (who by law are allowed to charge up to 400% interest per annum). Makes me dry-retch just thinking about it.
And history repeats: right now, consumer advocates are warning people to watch out for (unregulated) insurance claims management firms who promise to manage the insurance claims process in exchange for a percentage of the insurance settlement.
One Month On: You’ll Realise Your Insurance Payout Isn’t Enough
Yes, even I got caught out.
Our house was covered.
Our contents were covered.
Our farm fences were … partially covered.
I mean how expensive is 10 kilometres of fencing?
Quite a lot, in fact!
(Thankfully the awesome volunteers from BlazeAid swung to our rescue and helped rebuild our fences.)
And that’s why I’ve made a point of annoying people about checking their insurance every year.
In fact, a few years back I even fronted a Victorian Government campaign called ‘Insure It, It’s Worth It’.
The stats are horrifying: half of Australians don’t have enough home insurance for when disaster strikes.
What does that mean?
It means that statistically many bushfire victims will not be able to cover the cost of their rebuild.
(And the cost of rebuilding will skyrocket — often upwards of 20% — as a result of having to comply with new bushfire building codes, and a general spike in building costs.)
So, what happens then?
Well, insurance companies have the call on whether they repair, replace or cash settle a claim.
And when there’s a shortfall between the payout figure and the cost of the repair or rebuild, the insurance company will generally tally up a cash settlement.
And then they’ll send a cheque … but probably not to you.
Yes, in many cases not only are people underinsured, they will also have a mortgage. And when you have a mortgage, the bank is the legal owner of your home.
It’s a total disaster.
Know this: with most insurance policies there may well be additional things to claim, like payments for temporary accommodation, and other disaster allowances.
And it’s in this situation that financial counsellors shine; they’ll stand by you, and work with you.
Three Months On: The Easter Eggs Start to Crack
We ran on adrenaline for about three months.
And then, around Easter, the Duracell bunny ran out of puff.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I started to get really depressed. (It’s actually quite common: an expert I was speaking to recently said the 12-week mark is when people need some extra help.)
You see, everyone had moved on with their lives.
We were reminded of it every day: the smell, the blackness, and sleeping in someone else’s bed.
When we were at our lowest, three things helped:
First, on the black, scorched land we planted an apple tree.
Second, Liz bought a sign (and Blu-Tacked it to the wall) that said: “Home is wherever I am with you”.
Sounds corny, but it really helped me put things in perspective. It was the first thing I saw when I walked in the door each night. And when I wrote my book — based on our experience with the fires — I dedicated it to Liz, with that message on the first page.
Third, we went to see a counsellor who specialised in bushfire recovery.
One Year On … and Beyond: There Are People Who Can Help
In truth, I spent the first 12 months desperately waiting for everything to go back to normal.
You know what I ultimately learnt?
Things don’t go back to normal.
Instead, you’re forced to find a new normal. And sadly, for many, it’s very different from the life they enjoyed before the fires. And all too often these people fall through the cracks and face years of ongoing hardship.
That’s what inspired me to spend 2019 becoming a community-based financial counsellor.
And right now there are counsellors who are being deployed to fire affected areas.
I’m one of them.
We won’t be with you for just a week, or a month, or three months, or even a year … we’ll be with you all the way, for as long as it takes.
Hang in there.
Tread Your Own Path!
Insurance Law Service — free legal advice and support: 1300 663 464
NSW – Disaster Response Hotline: 1800 801 529
Victoria – Disaster Legal Help: 1800 113 432
Queensland – Bushfire Legal Help: 1300 004 924
Lifeline Australia – phone 13 11 14 for a free 24-hour crisis support service