Carla Rees: My city of ruins
Musician Carla Rees's flat was destroyed by fire in last year's riots. A year on, she explains how it feels to lose everything
Tuesday 24 July 2012
In the coverage of last year's London riots, one image that kept appearing was an aerial view of a block of homes in Croydon that had been burnt to the ground. One of those flats on London Road belonged to the flautist Carla Rees. On the night of 8 August, she was preparing to leave for an international flute convention in North Carolina.
As the atmosphere in the borough worsened, she decided to stay at a hotel for the night, taking only an overnight bag. The next morning, she found out about the fire on BBC News. All her possessions, including an irreplaceable flute collection and 600 pieces of unpublished music written for her, were destroyed. As were her two cats.
On her return, confronted by a strong smell of burning and an ash-covered site, she was very conscious that her cats were part of the debris. The only point of authority there was a fireman. "He gave me a leaflet about how to get smoke marks off of my walls and how to clean my windows."
All that remained of her property was the back wall. The only recognisable items of her property found within the rubble were the key work of a flute and a triangle.
Her insurance company put Carla up in a Premier Inn in Croydon. She was told explicitly not to have anyone else stay in the room with her, under any circumstances, as this would invalidate the insurance. "I couldn't think of anywhere I wanted to be less, nor was I stable enough to be on my own."
Carla later advised the property relocation company, appointed by her insurers, that she was willing to move anywhere within an hour's travel of London. They weren't much help. "Most of the agents didn't show up. At one point, they had organised three viewings at the same flat with different estate agents, at the same time."
The accommodation Carla is now renting she found and arranged for herself.
Her alternative accommodation cover was meant to cover the deposit and rent for her new flat for six months. The insurers paid the first month, but then stopped. After numerous panicked calls with the landlady and the insurance company, Carla ended up having to pay herself. She was reimbursed a few weeks later, but then it happened again the next month, and the next. She ended up having to pay the £2,000 deposit herself, too. Consequential cover isn't accounted for, so none of the rent she has to pay until the flat is rebuilt is covered, meaning that she needs to pay both rent and mortgage.
And then there is the contents insurance. Her demolished possessions were valued at just over £140,000. Before Christmas, she was told that she would receive the maximum cover, £85,000, but has yet to see any of it.
"I'm stuck until the insurance gives me my money. I'm spending my flute insurance money on my rent and they have yet to be replaced. I should be spending that money replacing my instruments, but I can't because I need it to pay the rent."
A day after the fire, she was told that it would take a year to get her contents insurance claim. "What are we supposed to live on in the meantime? If you're going to stand up in Parliament two days after the riots and say you're going to make everything all right, you have to do something then, not wait a year. The fact that it's costing the victims of the riots money to survive on a daily basis because of what happened, without support, needs to be addressed. We've been completely abandoned."
Late last year, Croydon Council set up meetings for the affected lease- and freeholders. After a while, it was suggested to move the meetings to London Road, in order to be "nearer to everyone's homes". "I said: 'Really? You think we all still live there?'
"The woman from the council looked at me blankly and asked: 'Oh, have you all moved?'"
Croydon Council sent Carla a letter about planning brief; in it an important form to fill out within two weeks. It only reached her long after the deadline, since it was addressed to London Road. She also had a letter sent to her from a loss adjuster, addressed to "Croyden".
Despite what the perpetrators did to her, Carla says she doesn't care if they are convicted. "It doesn't make any difference to me. It won't change a thing; doesn't bring anything back. Justice, perhaps, but that's it."
She doesn't harbour a grudge against London, either. "I've always loved it. I'm less happy about lots of people, but that's it. When it gets really busy I don't like it. I don't trust people very much any more."
She remains adamant that it's not all about losses. "There's a lot of positive from all this. There's also a very weird sense of freedom from not having any stuff any more – you can do anything and go anywhere. It makes you question what you were doing before. There's a beauty in realising that you love doing what you're doing, which makes the tremendous hassle worthwhile."
At the end of last year, Boris Johnson announced that the borough would receive a £23m regeneration fund. "They spent several thousands painting the hoardings and they're spending most of it on the redevelopment of East Croydon station and the town centre, projects that were in place a long time before the fire happened. Just a tiny part of that money would change our lives."
One year on, the riots have become a distant, though grave, memory for those not directly affected. Carla worries that the problems will be brushed under the carpet with the arrival of the Olympics, and that the victims won't receive the attention they deserve during the one-year anniversary. "I gave up on all the authorities very, very quickly, realising they didn't know what to do; they couldn't help. London needs to know that the situation is far from resolved."
As for her future, she tries not to let what happened be what defines her. "I have good days and bad days. Keeping going is the main thing. I'm really trying to focus on the positive, but there's a deep sense of hurt in the middle of me, which doesn't go away. I often have nightmares still about my cats dying.
"An experience like this is like a reset button on your entire life. You accumulate things: work, a lifestyle; stuff – it all evolves based on every decision you've made in your life and then suddenly it's all gone. And you have to decide what you'll do next."
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