Hurricane victim — from 2004 — finally returns home

Oct 24, 2012

The following article was published in The Orlando Sentinel on October 24, 2012: 

Hurricane Victim — from 2004 — Finally Returns Home

By Mary Shanklin

Retired textbook editor Linda Lipofsky may be the last Central Floridian to move back into a home damaged by the hurricanes of 2004.

This week marks her return to the three-bedroom home in south Orange County where she had planned to spend the rest of her life — before hurricanes Charley and Jeanne destroyed the roof. It took eight years of displacement and contractor mishaps before she found a team of volunteers, sponsors and nonprofits to rebuild it for her.

“I always wanted to get back in it,” said the 66-year-old grandmother, who had paid off the home’s mortgage long ago. She added with a laugh: “I’m old and poor.”

Few Central Florida residents were immune from Charley’s 90 mph wrath on Aug. 13, 2004. The strongest hurricane to enter Southwest Florida since Hurricane Donna in 1960, Charley slanted northeastward across the state, leaving 1.5 million Central Floridians without electricity for days. It was blamed for billions of dollars in insured losses.

Standing this week in the like-new kitchen that she had waited 3,000 days to reclaim, Lipofsky recounted the beginning of her odyssey.

“I was alone in the house, and it was being bombarded,” she said of Charley as it raked the Meadow Woods community where she lived. “Shingles were coming off. They were all over every place, and I saw one part of the ceiling about to fall in.”

In the days that followed, she had a tarp draped over the remains of her roof, but the plastic sheet didn’t last long: Three weeks later, Hurricane Frances hit, and three weeks after that, Hurricane Jeanne blew through. The tarp blew off during Jeanne, and torrential rains seeped inside, ruining the home’s walls, electrical wiring and floors.

From there, Lipofsky’s story stands as a cautionary tale for homeowners left to pick up the remains from a disaster.

Under the supervision of a contractor, unskilled workers never completed any of the work. She balked when a contractor was preparing to install shingles that had been recalled, and she said he then stretched out the job. One company took money for materials but then disappeared to seek work in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit there in 2005. Her insurance company, which reimbursed her $84,000 for materials, labor and temporary housing, went out of business.

About a year after the disaster, workers had done little, and her insurance stopped the reimbursements for temporary housing, so Lipofsky moved back into the shell of a house.

It had concrete floors and one electrical outlet, which was in her bedroom. To bathe, she said, she would fill a hot pot with water, plug it into the outlet, heat the water and pour it into the bathtub. She would repeat the ritual nine times until the tub had some standing water.

Early each morning, she was one of the first to work at Harcourt Inc.; in the evening, she was one of the last to leave. And on weekends, she spent a lot of time visiting her daughter in downtown Orlando.

The former schoolteacher also tried to pursue the absentee contractors. She sued one and filed complaints with the state but got no results. She wrote to everyone from members of Congress to Oprah Winfrey. Then, in 2007, she was laid off from the publishing company.

By 2009, she had enough of her patched-up existence and moved in with her daughter — but her daughter forbade her from talking about the house.

“She said, ‘If you’re going to be in my house, you’re not going to constantly drag things down by constantly talking about the [Meadow Woods] house,” Lipofsky said. “And she was right.”

Lipofsky, who had worked hard to pay off the mortgage years before, could not rent the house or sell it.

Laid-off and displaced, she returned to the house on Carolina Woods Lane once or twice a week to feed two cats — the schedule recommended by the vet, she said. Sometimes, she walked through Orlando’s IKEA home-furnishing store looking at affordable, easy-to-install products that could make her house habitable again. And she watched makeover shows on HGTV with her daughter.

It was actually on HGTV that her daughter saw a promotion for a program that reclaimed houses ruined in disasters. The two began emailing the group and soon connected with Rebuilding Together. Volunteers from that nonprofit and from the Orlando office of CBRE Group, a commercial-real-estate brokerage, have worked on the house since August. Grip-Rite, a construction-products dealer, donated equipment and about $50,000.

“We are happy to help Ms. Lipofsky get back on her feet by contributing to the rebuild and providing her with a safe home,” said Ken Fishbein, chief executive of PrimeSource Building Products Inc., distributor of Grip-Rite products.

On Tuesday, members of those organizations and hired crews worked to complete the repairs and renovations. Tim Parsons, associate director of Rebuilding Together, said Lipofsky has asked for little.

“I remember Linda said to me when I first met her: ‘Just give me my kitchen so I can live here,’ ” he said.

On Tuesday, she stood in that kitchen, with its new cabinets, tile floors and lighting. Almost as a reminder of how far she had come, she was holding the old hot pot — the same small appliance that had once heated her bath water.

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