The Federal Emergency Management Agency won’t be the only knight in shining armor that doesn’t come rushing in to clean up after a natural disaster, said Kymmie Scott, emergency director of the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation, at a community meeting in Smith River Tuesday night.

The tribe stands to lose numerous cultural and historic icons when a disaster occurs, from gravesites threatening to slide into the ocean to fisheries that uphold decades of tradition.

But many might lose their homes — and everything inside them.

“We like to think our stuff isn’t important,” Scott said in a meeting addressing disaster preparedness. “We get our loved ones out; that’s important. Fluffy got out in time. But we lose all our stuff in the disaster as well.”

Many don’t think much about it, or think FEMA will clean up the communitywide messes while insurance companies address the problems faced by homeowners.

“We hear that a lot,” said Mary Dorman, a 12-year Red Cross volunteer and Crescent City-based State Farm Insurance agent. “FEMA will come save me. No, they will not.

“Recovery can take years (in a ravaged community),” she added. “How well you go through that recovery phase depends how well you planned and what you did financially.”

She speaks from personal experience. Dorman married a Paradise, California, man last August. They had 130 guests at their nuptials. Three months later, the Camp Fire raged through that town, which a full third of the newlywed’s friends called home.

“Today, all but two have no homes; they literally escaped with the clothes on their backs,” Dorman said. “It was an intense day. I hear those stories over and over and over; thousands have that same story. It’s all about preparedness, knowing the risk and having a plan.”

Living in the computer age makes this much simpler, the two women agreed.

Important documents — home deeds, passports, credit card information — can be copied and stored in a safe deposit box or mailed to a trusted relative who lives farther away.

“You can’t prove who you are,” Scott said of the post-disaster period. “You can’t prove what you own.”

Of those present, half said they lived in manufactured homes.

“Read your policies,” Dorman said. “You need to ask, ‘What do I get if it burns to the ground; what are you going to pay me?’”

In most cases, “actual cash value” policies pay the amount based on the depreciated value of the home. A policy written for “replacement costs” will usually replace the home at its current value.

“There is a significant dollar difference for the customer,” Dorman said. “One is depreciated and one is not.”

In California, too, most policies have building code and ordinance coverage that funds the added expenses of replacing the home using the most recent building codes. A homeowner carrying that insurance and owning a residence with single-pane windows, for example, will be required to install double-pane windows in the new home. Without the coverage, the additional cost burden could fall to the homeowner.

Tsunami damages are typically covered under a homeowner’s flood insurance policy, which most people obtain through the National Flood Insurance Program. In high-risk areas, it’s often required. And flood insurance must purchased separately.

Policies need to be updated to reflect the value of improvements made, too.

“California puts it on your shoulders,” she warned. “I’m not going to your house and peeking through the windows to see if you have new flooring.”

Replacing the stuff

Once the ashes or water has cleared, however, victims of natural disasters start remembering what was lost and hope it’s covered in their policies as well.

“That’s the part of the process most people agonize about,” Dorman said. “Photos, photos, photos, photos. Photos. Did I say that enough? Take pictures. Open that closet door and take pictures. Take pictures under the kitchen sink. I cannot emphasize this enough. This is the single easiest thing you can do to reduce recovery time and help us help you.”

Store those photos with a trusted relative — or best yet, email them to yourself, she said. Those items likely can be replaced in some fashion.

“We can’t replace the old desk that grandpa made for grandma, or photos, or your son’s high school football trophy,” she said. “That’s the real heartbreaker for people.”

But without the photos, there’s no documentation the items ever existed.

“When you have a (disaster), your life changes at that moment,” Dorman said. “It will never be the same again. Money doesn’t solve everything, either, but it gives you the freedom to recover.”

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