‘A Tree Took Down My New House’

Katia Damaso, Staff Writer

I was sitting at home one afternoon, early in the pandemic, and began wondering what my next step in life would be.

I’d already bought my share of online sale-priced goods, watched what felt like every show there was to see on Netflix and was still managing to save money because the lockdown was keeping me from traveling, eating out with friends and many other things I normally enjoyed doing. Knowing interest rates were crazy low, on a whim, I dialed my buddy Anthony, a real estate agent, and told him I’d like to check out what was on the market.

“Houses are going quick and the stock is low,” he warned me.  So we got right to it.

Less than a month later, I found myself at a closing. The whole thing happened so fast that it  came as a surprise, even to me, when I was handed the keys and a couple of celebratory champagne glasses and told I was the homeowner of a cute little beach house.

Three weeks later, while standing in the living room of my new house, boxes strewn all over and things still very much unpacked, a brief windstorm caused a tree to rip through the ceiling, missing my head by just a few feet.

I stood there, simply disbelieving, surrounded by insulation, splintered wood and water everywhere.  There was an actual tree in the middle of my living room.  I’d barely owned my house a month.  I’d invested the bulk of my savings into it.  I had nowhere to go, having already turned over my apartment.

I genuinely didn’t even know where to begin, so I cried while the police drew up a report and watched helplessly as the gas was turned off, and my new house was declared uninhabitable. “This will all seem like a bad dream in another year,” one of the officers told me. I knew he was trying to make me feel better, but to me, in that moment, there was no promise of hope.

The first two weeks were brutal.  My issue was assigned to the catastrophe unit, but due to a high volume of claims related to the very storm that ruined my house, the insurance carrier couldn’t get to me right away.  As luck would have it, the days after the damage brought rain.

For over a week I tortured myself by driving past my new house with the gaping hole and watching it get rained into, open to the elements, squirrels and birds. When they eventually arranged for a tarp to be put on, it made my house look injured.  It stuck out with its giant blue Band-Aid on top of it, which made me feel somehow worse.

For a few weeks I lived in a hotel the insurance put me up in and put my stuff in a storage unit.   Subsequently, I was lucky to find an empty studio apartment in my old building while I waited for things to play out.

I suppose the good news is that despite taking almost two years, the insurance carrier ultimately covered  the damages to my house.  What no one knows until they go through this type of catastrophic loss is that in order to have a house rebuilt by insurance one often gets drawn into a constant struggle involving third parties (claims adjusters, mortgage companies, architects, engineers, etc.).

At times it can feel like a part-time job that includes all sorts of duties one isn’t familiar with: applying for permits, gathering documents to substantiate damaged items, waiting on township officials to conduct inspections, to name a few.

You also never really know when your house will be finished; completion is subject to so many factors, the most important of which is money that is in someone else’s hands. There’s a lot of red tape involved, and I had to adjust and re-adjust the amount of things I needed from my storage facility, my optimism curbed by reality more than once.

It started to feel like every time I thought I’d get back into my house, there’s be some kind of setback. I should mention that throughout this whole process, I was still obligated to pay my monthly mortgage.

It has now been three years since the tree smashed my house, and I’m once again living in it.  I’ve had the chance to unpack and put everything in what I hope is its permanent place. The rebuild has been tedious and emotionally draining, but now that it’s all over, I reflect more on the fact that the tree could’ve not missed me the way it did.

Sometimes, I feel very lucky.  And sometimes, when I sit in the living room and the wind starts howling excessively, I fight the urge to go to another room and hide until the weather clears.