COLORADO SPRINGS. Fran Rutherford will never forget the day in June 2013 when she first drove up to the site where her home of 17 years had previously stood. The house where she and her husband Larry had raised their four children – and that was carefully furnished with items from around the world collected during Larry’s military career -- was reduced to a pile of ashes by the Black Forest Fire.
“We had been on a cruise and so each of us had a suitcase with just a few items,” recalled Fran Rutherford. “In addition, all three of our sons were in transition and storing things in our barn. Their scrapbooks, their memorabilia, were all destroyed. They lost their past.”
Rutherford recently published a book about her family’s experience titled “Rising From The Ashes: Disaster Recovery for the Homeowner” (Aquinas and More Publishing). More than just an account of personal tragedy, the book is designed to help other homeowners prepare for and recover from natural disasters. It includes valuable tips on how to perform a household inventory and deal with insurance companies, not just in the case of fires but also floods, hurricanes and tornadoes. The book will be one of the resources used when Catholic Charities USA holds its week-long disaster response workshop in Colorado Springs in early December.
In a section of the book titled “Getting Help,” Rutherford describes how local charitable organizations immediately mobilized to provide relief to those displaced by the Black Forest fire. One of those was Catholic Charities of Central Colorado, which dispatched a disaster relief team to the burn area. Having dealt with the Waldo Canyon fire only 12 months prior, the agency was well-prepared to respond.
“We were just blown away by how many people – including Catholic Charities – were right there on the scene. Terri Gray came out; she was distributing gift cards and was truly a person on the ground,” Rutherford said. “There were problems with looting out there, and we told her that we could use a shed to store tools. She arranged that.”
“Our experience with Catholic Charities was nothing but positive. We could not have asked for more and we’re very grateful,” Rutherford said. “They were there to listen because a lot of people were overwhelmed with grief and not knowing what to do.”
Indeed, providing well-trained workers to accompany those dealing with grief was one of the primary ways Catholic Charities responded to the fire. Just a few weeks after the event, the agency joined with Our Lady of the Pines Parish to hold a gathering at the church where licensed professional counselors and Stephen Ministers trained in disaster response were available to talk. In addition, residents were provided with information and resources for filing insurance claims and other practical concerns.
One of the issues addressed in Rutherford’s book is the fact that people who have lost their homes in a natural disaster are under pressure from insurance companies to rebuild within a certain amount of time. That stress can prove to be overwhelming. In the Rutherfords’ case, their insurance company told them they had to finish building their new home in 12 months.
“We’re told by the experts that, after having a major loss in our life, we are not to do anything for a year – that you shouldn’t make any major decisions because you’re not in an emotional state to make those decisions,” Rutherford said. “But if you have a situation like this – a major trauma – and your insurance company is saying that you have one year, you are having to make decisions through the trauma; you can’t just stop. One year – when everybody is scrambling for contractors, materials, architects, etc. – is nothing.”
Nonetheless, there were bright spots amidst the devastation, Rutherford said. For one thing, in sifting through piles of ash, Rutherford’s son recovered her wedding ring, which she thought had been destroyed. And local Catholics rallied around the family in several ways. Members of St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish purchased various household items, and a member of Immaculate Conception Parish in Security organized a clothing shower for Fran.
“It was a real surprise when St. Gabriel contacted us and asked us for a list of what we needed. Total strangers gave us beautiful gifts for the house. That was so selfless,” Rutherford said.
Some of the items destroyed in the fire were irreplaceable, such as family heirlooms and mementoes, and it’s painful to think of the many family letters that were lost, she said. But Rutherford said that God used the ordeal to help her and husband grow in detachment.
“If I didn’t have faith, I would just see it as bad luck,” she said. “But we’ve had enough challenges throughout life that we think everything is allowed by God for a reason. Now I think that part of that reason was to divest us of stuff – to let us know that we don’t need to have a lot of stuff to be happy.”
One rule the Rutherfords made when they moved into their new home was that, for every new item brought into the house, another one has to be removed, she said. And the couple is more aware of opportunities to assist others going through hard times.
“I think it’s shown us that we need to reach out when other people are in those kinds of situations,” she said. “One of the reasons I wrote the book is to show people what can be done to help others.”
Editor’s note: “Rising From the Ashes: Disaster Recovery for the Homeowner” is available at www.disasterrecoverybook.com as well as on Amazon and at local bookstores. The book retails for $19.99.