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Insurance helps Van Wagner family begin repairs after home fire

Dec. 19, 2012

Editor's note: This story is the second part of an in-depth look at what a family goes through when their home is destroyed by a fire. When the Van Wagner family of Oconomowoc was displaced by a fire that roared through their home, heading to a hotel wasn't terribly simple because their two German shepherds are part of the family. Amy Van Wagner said her husband, Stan, stayed in their detached garage - which serves as his "man cave" - that first night. The children and Amy stayed with friends for the night.

The next morning Amy said she was instructed to go back to the home and collect the things she needed. A simple concept on paper, but not in reality, she said. "How did I know what I needed? I didn't even know at that moment where I was going to stay," she said.

Oconomowoc Deputy Fire Chief Glenn Leidel said that's a normal reaction when you're in such a traumatic situation. He said part of a firefighter's job is to help the victim - if it's possible - retrieve their car keys, wallet and medications.

The Red Cross was on hand shortly after the fire to help the family. Amy said the organization has gone beyond that initial help by checking in with the family and making sure their needs are met.

She said one of her friends was so impressed with how the Red Cross helped the Van Wagners, she decided to join as a volunteer.

A temporary home

Amy said a family friend heard the news and has a home just five blocks away that he is not using. He graciously offered the family the three-bedroom house to live in while their home is repaired.

They spent Thanksgiving in the home, and while it wasn't celebrated in their home on Elm Street, they still had a lot to be thankful for, she said.

"We were all very thankful we made it out," Amy said.

Is it covered?

"I can't tell you how many of our friends went home and checked their policy (after the fire)," Amy said.

Knowing what your policy covers is important, said Barb McFadden of Snyder Insurance. But even more important is keeping a current inventory.

"You don't necessarily have to write it down, but you can keep track of it visually," she said. McFadden said every year homeowners should go through each room and closet of their home, and take photos or make note of what's there. "It's easier in the digital age to take a snapshot and keep it somewhere," she said, noting that computer tools like Dropbox and Cloud make it easier to store photos in a place that won't be destroyed and can be accessed other ways.

Amy said remembering what was there has been a challenge. She and Stan close their eyes and try to imagine all the things that had been in their living room. They've received snapshots of furniture and other items from the restoration company that they examine to see whether the items are worth saving.

"The unused coffee table that was in the attic can go, but the cradle my grandfather made, yes, we want that back," Amy explained.

Contacting the insurance company proved to be another challenge. She didn't have a number handy, but was able to salvage an old bill from the basement. However, when she called the phone number had been disconnected with no forwarding information. So she found a current bill, but this time only a web address was given, and Amy was fresh out of a computer and Internet access.

However, once she was able to track down her insurance agent, Amy said they have been very helpful.

McFadden's advice is to always keep your agent's contact information in your cellphone. "I had a client whose motor home caught fire on his way to Alaska. Luckily he had my number in his cellphone and was able to call right away," she said.

How insurance helps

What then? How do you begin to put your life back together after such a tragedy? And how can your insurance company help?

Amy said the insurance company offers money immediately after you contact them to help you get the things you need right away. The insurance company also then contacts a restoration and cleaning crew to help, a step she appreciates not having to worry about.

"A cleaning crew comes in and takes textiles and asks what you need back right away. For us the first weekend it was warm and then it got cold, so I had to call back and ask for warmer clothes," she said.

The insurance company works with the restoration company and a building inspector on estimates and reports for repairs. Once the inspector signs off on the restoration company's plans for renovations, the rebuilding process can begin.

"You get money for the structure and money for your stuff, but they don't just hand you a check," Amy said.

There's a considerable amount of paperwork and checks and balances involved. Dams said it can take two weeks to a month before construction crews can begin to rebuild.

In the meantime, the Van Wagners do get to go shopping. Amy said their damage estimate for items in the home was around $26,000, but with holiday sales, she said much of it was replaced for half that. While they got to go on a shopping spree, it was still bittersweet, she said.

"Life just isn't the same. Once you're in a home for 20 years, you reach for the toilet paper on the left side and it's not there," she said, explaining that it takes getting used to.

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