Shortly before 3 p.m. on March 2 — during the first of two nor'easters that would cripple the Philadelphia area with heavy, wet snow, high winds, and power outages — I heard a thunderous crash. Peeking out a second-floor window, I discovered that a gigantic evergreen had fallen and taken out much of my neighbor's porch. As I frantically looked for her phone number to let her know what had happened, the monstrous oak tree in my own front yard smashed through my home in Bala Cynwyd.
I don't remember where I was standing. All I know is that miraculously, I was unhurt — and greatly thankful that my three kids were still at school and my husband at work. If either of my daughters, ages 7 and 11, had been home, chances are that one or both of them would have been seriously injured or killed, since the oak sliced directly through their second- and third-floor bedrooms. The thought still haunts me today.
In shock, I paced around my house taking photos of the damage and texting them to my husband ("So this just happened …") until firefighters stormed in and ordered me out. They were worried the structure might not hold and the tree would fall further through the house. Kind neighbors took me in and picked up my children from school, reminding me as I sobbed that, after all, it was only stuff. Our house ultimately would be fixed. The situation could have been much worse.
Digesting their wisdom, but still shaking and crying, I started making calls, first to my husband, who was slowly making his way home through the storm. Clearly the damage was so catastrophic we would not be able to live in the house for a very long time — if ever again. I kept playing out the "what ifs" and began to wonder how long it would be before we could resume a normal life.
A sympathetic woman from our insurer, Safeco, took down the details of what had happened and directed me to the company that would handle our relocation. We were offered a temporary hotel stay in Philadelphia but opted to bunk with friends to be closer to our kids' school and benefit from their comfort as we looked for an apartment. The initial search was discouraging: Apartments were too grungy, too small for a family of five, too far away, or too full of what appeared to be partying college kids.
>> READ MORE: What to do if a tree falls on your house
Finally, a friend recommended the new Wynnewood Maybrook complex, which I was certain our insurance wouldn't cover but was so gorgeous (and dog-friendly) that my husband and I emptied our checking account to cover a deposit. We moved in the next day, renting furniture from a local company. I busied myself with ferrying clothing, books, and trinkets that I could rescue from our house to our apartment. We had no idea how long we would be out of our home.
Four months later, as of early July, we still had not reached an insurance settlement. Luckily, a friend advised us early on to hire a private adjuster to represent our interests through the process of determining the scope of the damage and the amount of the insurance payment.
Our representative, Rick Reigner of Young Adjustment Co. in Blue Bell, started by persuading Safeco to pay for our beautiful new digs. (Little did we imagine that this summer, we'd be enjoying the shimmering pool we admired when we arrived here in the depths of winter.)
Reigner and the insurance company also arranged for Servpro, a national company that specializes in fire and water cleanup, to remove the debris from our house and to pack and move our remaining belongings into storage.
A sort of bitter bonus in this fiasco was that we already had close relationships with a contractor, Manny Mantakounis, owner of EGM Construction in Glen Mills, and the local artist and designer Samantha Kreindler, principal of Skip Home in Merion. This duo had worked their magic to renovate our kitchen and family room just two years before — and, dreaming about future projects, we had kept in touch.
"When you first texted me those pictures, my heart sank, because I felt so connected to you and your family from having worked with you so much," Kreindler said. "My approach for design is not necessarily about the structure. For me, it's about the family that lives there."
Kreindler suggested we list things that were important to us in our home and what we wanted "so that you're welcomed back into a space that's even better than it was before."
Mantakounis, who has a lot of experience doing rebuilds involving insurance settlements, worried that the insurer wouldn't "pay what it would really take to put the house back together and the contractor make a reasonable amount of money."
"I advised you in the beginning that this ain't going to be fast," Mantakounis added, counseling people in our situation to have "patience, patience, patience" — not one of my strong suits.
Reigner likewise urged patience and described the delicate dance of trying to keep our case in the insurance adjuster's line of sight while also trying not to alienate him by being annoying. That advice was likely aimed at me, since I had been buzzing around Reigner for updates like a fly you can't seem to get out of your house.
Even as negotiations continued, the insurance company approved preliminary demolition, and Mantakounis' crew took down the top two floors of our home and covered the gaping holes in the roof. Seeing two-thirds of our house reduced to the studs was surprisingly cool. We discovered what had once been a Jack-and-Jill bathroom, for instance.
But I can't believe four months have passed. As soon as we settle the claim, Mantakounis is ready to rebuild, and Kreindler and I have decided on the design. I keep telling myself that the end product will be even more beautiful than what we had.
In the meantime, we continue to adjust to what will most likely be a year of close-knit apartment life. We addressed complaints from the downstairs neighbors, likely stemming from our 11-year-old son dribbling the basketball inside — something he misses from home. I'm pining for the peace, quiet, and space of my home office. Our dog is so anxious from all the changes that he's frantically scratching the apartment's front door. (There goes our damage deposit.)
And we all miss throwing open the back door and dashing into the fresh air of our backyard.
Ultimately, I know that this experience will make my family stronger, pulling us together in a tighter space and forcing us to learn from one of life's major hiccups.