Nobody was home on Friday when the fire broke out in the first floor bedroom. By the time Patricia and LaToya got back home, the fire department had already come and gone. The entire inside of their house was black from the ashes and dank from the layer of watery mucus streaked with boot prints covering the floor. The bedroom ceiling had been gutted and light from the exposed gash provided the only source of light on the piles of splintered wood and overturned furniture now mangled into unrecognizable heaps.
Patricia and LaToya were still reeling from the shock of what had happened to their home when volunteers from the Red Cross Disaster Action Team (DAT) arrived on scene. The group walked through the sisters’ West 61st Street home, taking in the extent of the wreckage in silence. Patricia’s two children, a 14 year-old daughter and a 13 year-old son, were at school– thank goodness for that at least– but where were their medical cards? To assess how the Red Cross was going to help her family, the volunteers needed to verify who lived inside the house. All Patricia could find was the trunk where the children’s medical cards were located—and they weren’t in there now. Angela, a social work intern on the Disaster Action Team, tried to calm her down and told Patricia the Red Cross will give her time to retrieve copies of any documents she needed. Halfway through the interview, Patricia was finally able to locate her medical cards.
The fire in Patricia’s home probably started spontaneously from faulty electrical wiring–there was no way anyone could have predicted what would happen as they left the house on that fateful morning. By the time the family got back, things were so chaotic, physically and mentally, that the simple act of piecing together a coherent picture of life before the fire became fraught with anxiety. Witnessing Patricia’s stress while trying to account for the identity of her children popped all sorts of questions about the safety of my own records at home: Sure, I kept this letter in the yellow folder in that drawer–but would I be able to find it if that room got wrecked? Would there even be anything left to find?
Suddenly I realized how vulnerable we all are to losing our identity. How even more critical those bits of cards and paper become in the immediate aftermath of an attack on our homes. It was a stroke of good luck that nobody was inside when the fire broke out in Patricia’s house, but it also meant that trying to regroup in the wake of all that destruction became that much harder. The last thing you want to worry about when your house lays tattered before you is trying to prove you actually live there. That’s why Angela counsels carrying some documentation verifying your home address at all times. An old bill or a cancelled check tucked into the back of a wallet could turn out to be the small sliver of relief amidst a day of loss and disorientation.