Natural Disasters, Other Calamities and YOU

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(By Michael Babiarz) (Note the part about the hurricane, we did as he said we would)

A toaster oven seems like an innocuous appliance. Perhaps more popular 20 years or so ago than today, I was surprised to find a decent selection of them at my local, big-box, discount department store. With the proliferation of microwavable products and cheap zappers In which to cook them, the old-fashioned toaster oven is pretty anachronistic. True, you can brown your English muffin in it, but it likely will take twice as long as a pop-up toaster. Besides, with all that processed, white flour, an English muffin isn’t good for you anyway. Shame on you for thinking of such a bad breakfast. Now go have scrambled eggs (organic, cage-free and Omega-3 enriched please) and some fruit.

My wife Ann wanted to buy a toaster oven. I resisted. Back in the 1990s, an employee of a company with whom I did business had one of these devices. One day, she decided to cook something in it. It was dinner, so it likely was not an English muffin, although I’m not sure exactly what she was preparing. She started her meal and left home to run an errand. When she returned, flames had already breached the roof of her house, Although the fire department did their best, her residence turned into a total gut job. The culprit was the toaster oven.

We can engage in a lively debate about whether it was smart to leave that gadget unattended. But the fact remains that fire, flood and earthquakes, as well as tornadoes, hurricanes and other storms, cause chaos. Nowadays, you can add terrorism to that list. And the devastation that afflicted the toaster oven lady, which ranged from financial to physical to emotional, is something that can affect any one of us. You may be vigilant and shut off small appliances when out. Nevertheless, you can’t steer a hurricane or tornado away from your property.

Around the same time as the toaster oven fire incident, Ann and I went on vacation. When we returned, we discovered that our main sewer line from the house to the parkway had ruptured and “used” water backed up into the lower floor of our tri-level. It’s amazing how much damage a couple of inches of water can do, especially when it’s from the wrong side of your plumbing system.

Natural disasters can be as mundane as a sewer backup. They can be as sudden and ravaging as a fire. Or, they can be as rare as a lightning strike.

One of the clients of my legal practice had his chimney destroyed by a powerful bolt from a summer thunderstorm. Fortunately, it didn’t start a fire, injure anyone, or create any collateral damage beyond shattering several hundred bricks. Still another client was personally struck by lightning. Fortunately, he seemed none the worse for the wear. It did create some embarrassment for me with respect to the manner in which I uncovered this fact.

I often discussed with clients how, in the process of planning their estates and putting appropriate documentation in place, they couldn’t possibly cover every scenario. I advised them to simply focus on what they could deal with, the more commonplace items, as planning for the oddball situations may leave them worse off than if they ignored them. My favorite maxim for this was, “you shouldn’t worry about things as unlikely as winning the lottery or being struck by lightning.” One day, when I was reciting this pet phrase of mine during a client meeting, the person to whom I was speaking said, dryly, “oh, but I was struck by lightning — several years ago in fact.”

It was a while before I used my “struck by lightning” phrase again.

My friend’s sister lives in Southern California. Several years ago, she had to bug out as wildfires crept perilously close to her home. Aside from some minor smoke damage, her property survived unscathed. Nevertheless, I’m sure this was a frightening scene for her and her mate.

Southern Californians are also well aware of earthquakes. Growing up in the midwest, I never experienced the kind of tremors that rock the West Coast from time to time. I did feel a couple of gentle shakes that originated in Missouri and wandered several hundred miles north. I would hardly classify these as disasters. The movement wasn’t even enough to spill a drop of water out of a glass.

Surprisingly enough, I never saw a tornado, although my area was rife with them. I witnessed damage from several twisters in my 50+ years living in Illinois. These storms were powerful and freakish. You would see several houses on a block with not even a shingle disturbed and then one in their midst completely destroyed.

My roots are now in Southwest Florida. The area in which I live is prone to hurricanes. I’ve only experienced glancing blows from these tropical entities. Nevertheless, if a category two or higher cyclone fixes its sights upon my neck of the woods, I am packing up the car and heading out.

As I write these words, we are 15 years since terrorists first struck on a massive scale on US soil. Not a day passes without a news item about further threats to our safety. Public areas and private companies have ramped up security. Nonetheless, it sometimes seems as if the very measures that we take to ensure public safety often leave us vulnerable to other issues.

Vast amounts of information are now collected about us from government and private industry. Hackers from around the world break into digital storage and steal this information. Data breaches are frequent.

Security companies monitor cameras at apartment buildings and can see when you’ve left for the day. Bad apples then relay that information to their confederates. These thieves know it’s safe to break into your place.

And my own personal opinion is that the measures taken to increase security at airports exist primarily to mollify travelers and do little to stop determined would-be wrongdoers. Bolstering cockpit doors on airplanes makes a lot of sense. Telling you that you must throw away a bottle of water because it contains too many ounces and then permitting you to dispose of that container in a garbage can next to a long, snaking line of travelers? I’m not sure about that one.

Whether the strike is from terrorists or lightning, or the fire sweeps towards your home from the tinder on nearby hills or from faulty wiring in a cheaply made appliance, the potential for damage to life or property from these disasters can be grave. Do you know of someone who has suffered extensive damage to a home due to weather or an act of God? Is your anxiety heightened by watching the TV news as reporters recite numerous plots against various areas of the world? I’m not sure how to discourage tornadoes from visiting your neighborhood. I do find that my life is more pleasant since I started cultivating selective ignorance for news items regarding things about which I can do nothing. If some fringe, radical group is planning to launch a dirty bomb or to poison the water supply, I can think of nothing that I can do, given my current lifestyle and station in life, to combat this.

There are those who prepare for such contingencies. They may live in or have access to secluded properties, be trained to operate firearms, and stockpile food and water. I gave up being the rugged outdoors type years ago when I decided I didn’t look good in flannel. I am tempted to buy a gun. It seems to be the socially acceptable thing to do. Concealed carry is “in”; even stay-at-home moms pack heat. And I have a family member who’s an expert trainer in firearm usage. With his help, I think I can avoid maiming myself. Without his assistance, I believe I would be the main target of any bullet I might fire.

Marauding mobs pounding on the front door or zombies trudging through neighborhood streets aside, for most of us, insurance represents our defense against many disasters, natural and unnatural alike. After stemming the tide of sewer water, picking up shards of brick in the backyard, or sifting through still smoldering wreckage of a burned-out house for any remaining mementos, we often think of our insurance. Our policy was in our house. Did it burn, fry or mold? We may have a magnet clinging to the door of our refrigerator that contains the name and phone number of our agent. And where exactly did the tornado drop our refrigerator? Fortunately, we have our smart phone. It used to be that children and pets were the first things we thought about saving during a natural disaster. Now these devices may have moved to the top of our list. But with our phone, our agent may be in our contact list. Or, if we remember his name, we can search on the web and give him a jingle.

If you’re fortunate, you snagged your wallet or purse and have a collection of credit cards. And if you are a prudent individual, your credit cards are not charged to the hilt. Consequently, you have the means to find a place to stay, purchase some clothes and necessities, and lick your wounds a bit. If your purse got washed away in the flood, that ubiquitous smart phone may be used to call Mom or your BFF for a couch-surfing visit.

Hopefully, the wounds you are licking are only financial or psychological. I’m not going to downplay the devastation that can be wrought upon your psyche by the sight of a gaping hole where your home used to be. But the old adage of your health being the most important thing is absolutely a truism.

Was someone injured by a lightning strike, a fire or a rogue terrorist? I will discuss health concerns in the next chapter.

But this is a book about preparation and planning. Short of moving to a bunker somewhere in Idaho, what can you do to ameliorate anxiety over wrongdoings, either from fellow humans or from mother nature? Besides, even if you are in your underground lair, you’re going to need cable and Internet access. How else are you going to get football on TV? How will your kids survive without access to on-line games? It’s a well-known fact that a five year old gets mighty ornery locked together with his parents in a recycled missile silo. You’re all going to need things to do. And the electronic signature from being on the web will let everyone know where you are anyway.

Moreover, disasters such as those discussed in this chapter come in many shapes and sizes. You could ban toaster ovens from your property. You could select your hometown based upon the calmness of the weather. Nonetheless, prevention is typically not the answer. The reason many of these things are unforeseen is because, well, no one saw them coming. Unless you are one of a handful of individuals born with a rare, compromised immune system, you’re not going to live your life in a bubble.

Instead, the key is to have the wherewithal and forethought to squeeze lemonade from whatever lemon falls off your tree of life. The odds of disaster, whether natural or otherwise, striking you or a close family member are significant. Whether it be weather-related catastrophe, unfortunate accident to property, or imposition of martial law, chaos arising from these incidents comes along much more frequently than one winning a lottery or being struck by lightning. Oops . . .

As you’ll see in part two of this book, I will provide you with seven steps to gird yourself against misfortune. For now, your first point in this process is to become aware of the types of plagues that can befall you. The story of Job, told in one of the books of the Old Testament of the Bible, recounts many tragedies that befell one man and his family. Although I would hope that any natural disaster that might strike you would not be as a result of a bet between God and Satan, Job did have a plan. Moreover, his plan did work in the end. Your plan will too.