It is a year since the Abbco Tower fire in Sharjah, when flames engulfed the 190-metre tall tower after iftar on a Tuesday evening in early May. Residents told their stories to us in the days after the fire, recounting how they made their way out of the building. The hurt and disorientation was obvious in their testimonies.
One person we spoke to said: “I don’t have anything except the phone in my hand and the clothes I am wearing.” Another told us: “You could smell the smoke but you couldn’t see it – which was probably worse.”
Thankfully, the fire was dealt with quickly and there were few reported injuries and no fatalities.
For most of those residents, however, the trauma of surviving such an event will have lingered, as well as the complications of getting their lives back on track.
Any time I hear about a fire or flood – and one of our readers asked our 'Homefront' expert Mario Volpi this week about flood damage in their apartment and what recourse they may have, especially as they were uninsured – my mind instinctively ticks back to my own experiences.
My father died in a house fire many years ago in the UK.
Wave upon wave of emotions hit you in the days after such an event, as the former residents of the Abbco Tower will be only too well aware.
In my own family’s case, my brother and I found ourselves trying to cope with the loss of a parent and the reality of the smoke damage that had wrecked the house we had grown up in.
We spent weeks of a damp, humid English summer touching every keepsake from our childhood and having to make instant decisions about whether an item was too badly smoke damaged to keep or not. In the end, we dumped almost everything.
I lost count of the amount of skips we booked to throw those memories into. Even now, more than a decade later, we have a storage unit in the UK containing the last 10 boxes of items that we had neither the will nor the inclination to sift through back then. I am not sure we have the strength to do so even now.
It was a period in which I ended up keeping mental score cards of those people who treated us well and those who lacked understanding. My world became tribal: was someone with me in recognising how hurt I felt, or were they against me?
One of the two emergency services who dealt with the fire showed vast amounts of compassion for the despair we found ourselves in, the other committed a gross betrayal of our privacy that I still find hard to come to terms with today.
Some of the drivers who collected those waste containers we needed to clear the house could see the pain written all over our faces, others argued with us over bureaucratic technicalities such as whether the skip was overloaded or not and, consequently, we fought back.
One of the agencies who treated us best back then was the company who insured the house. Once we had retrieved the necessary paperwork from a strongbox inside the home, the loss adjusters managed our case with care. They were extraordinarily helpful and patient. They understood that in such a moment of incomprehension we might need things explained to us more than once. Nothing was too much trouble for them.
The story ends with the house being refurbished within a year via the insurance claim and the two brothers slowly putting our lives back together.
But these events never leave you. The scar of such a traumatic loss is part of me now and I am proud that it is, but there have been many times when I have not worn it well.
An unexpected consequence of the fire has been to make me a strong advocate for insurance. I do not know how I would have coped if we had been unable to repair the house. Its refurbishment did not make up for the loss of a parent, but it did give me some hope that better days might lie ahead. The process of putting the house back together via an insurance claim, helped me reconnect the pieces of my own life.
Rates of adoption for insurance in the UK are around 75 per cent, while data collected in 2018 found that only 11 per cent of UAE consumers had home insurance in place. Insurance companies tend to report an uptick in enquiries about contents insurance every time there is a high-profile fire, but still relatively few people have cover in place, despite its apparent low cost.
There may be many reasons for low rates of adoption as Dr Saliha Afridi told me this week, when I messaged the founder of Lighthouse Arabia Centre for Wellbeing about the psychology of insurance.
She told me that “culturally speaking, insurance is not a custom that has existed in this part of the world for very long” and said that some people might put their faith in the natural course of events, while others may feel that they do not need to protect their personal belongings because the UAE is so safe.
The Abbco Tower case, the enquiry to our 'Homefront' expert and other examples, including my own, tell us that, unfortunately, the worst often happens.
Practically speaking, there are a few things that could help increase rates of insurance adoption here.
Individuals should weigh the benefits of being insured against the cost of the policies on offer. Insurance companies should do better at explaining those benefits. Writing their policies in plain language would be a start. The industry also needs to battle the perception that insurers exist purely to bat away claims, rather than to help victims. I know from experience that is not the case, but others do not.
And finally, is it time for tenancy contracts to have mandatory contents insurance written into them? For a relatively small monthly charge levied like the municipality tax, all of us could be covered and have peace of mind.
Nick March is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National