Gay couples rebuild their lives after Dec. 26 tornado
At least two gay couples in Rowlett lost their homes to the tornadoes that hit the area on Dec. 26.
One couple got help from friends until they could get their cars out of the garage and found their wallets in the rubble.
The other found themselves underinsured and started a GoFundMe to help with upcoming expenses.
Hewey and Myer
Joseph Hewey and Chris Myer had lived in their lakefront house in Rowlett for two years when, on the day after Christmas, Hewey heard the tornado sirens. He grabbed his 10-year-old black Lab and put her in a closet under the stairs to keep her safe.
When Myer, who is originally from Kansas, heard what sounded like thunder that just kept getting louder, he knew what was coming. He and Hewey headed for the safety of the under-the-stairs closet with their dog, and by the time they got there, they could hear windows breaking.
By the time the storm had passed, their lakefront home was destroyed.
“We saved maybe 5 percent,” Hewey said, noting that the storm had spared a closet where they kept photo albums and other memorabilia.
After quickly surveying the damage around them, the two men checked to see if their neighbors were safe. The neighbors on one side were OK, but they were renters who had no renters’ insurance; they lost everything.
When they went to see about the neighbors on the other side of their house, Hewey and Myer ended up pulling the couple out of their rubble that was once their home. The woman was seven months pregnant and went into labor. Emergency vehicles were able to get her to the hospital.
While most of Hewey and Myer’s house was destroyed, the garage survived along with their two cars. One, a car they’ve had for only three days, was unscathed; the other suffered only minor scratches.
But the men said they couldn’t open their garage door, and they couldn’t find their wallets. So friends lent them money and took them shopping to buy jackets, toothbrushes and a change of clothes to get them through the next couple of days.
The couple stayed with friends for a week-and-a-half, until they found a house in North Dallas to rent.
Hewey said the rental market in the Dallas area is so tight they had a choice of only three houses within the price range their insurance would pay for.
They spent the next week sifting through the rubble.
Both Hewey and Myer work from home and in addition to finding their wallets, they also found the hard drives to their computers.
Despite the two days of rain that followed the tornadoes, the hard drives worked when they plugged them into new computers.
Myer is an architect and is designing a new house they plan to build on their lakefront lot, once the debris is cleared. Hewey said he hopes that will be within a year, but he acknowledged they may be looking at close to two years, because of a shortage of contractors as a result of the storm.
“It will take awhile to get back to normal,” Hewey said. “But we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. One day it’s going to be normal again.”
Rainone and Fowler
Alfredo Rainone and Anthony Fowler are also optimistic. They’ve already talked to a contractor from their insurance company’s approved list and hope to be back in their home in about eight months. That’s the timeline their contractor gave them.
“It’s been a nightmare,” Rainone said. “But we’re safe and our dogs are safe.”
When the sirens came on, Rainone said he and Fowler didn’t pay much attention at first. Then they decided to put the dogs in the laundry room just to be safe. If it wasn’t for the dogs, they might have been upstairs when the tornado blew the roof off the house.
“Things were going crazy in the house,” Rainone said, “So we jumped into the laundry room with the dogs.”
He didn’t notice until after the storm that a board had gone through the laundry room wall. One wall to the house was gone and the roof damaged, but their house wasn’t damaged as badly as some of their neighbors’ homes.
Like Hewey and Myer, once they realized they were safe, Rainone and Fowler went out to make sure their neighbors were safe, too.
Rainone said five neighbors came into their house for the evening to arrange for a place to stay — phone service was down, but text messages were going out sporadically.
Rainone and Fowler spent the night in their house, but as the rain continued, the roof collapsed.
“The bedroom caved in around us that night,” Rainone said.
Their insurance company said the frame of their house is salvageable. But Fowler said they have learned they were under-insured.
Fowler said he’s lived in the house for 29 years and a few years ago, he was over-insured. Because property values in the area have risen so fast and so many homes were damaged in the storm, his contractor told him they’d charge $119 per square foot to repair the house.
“We’re under-insured because the house has been upgraded and prices have spiked,” Fowler said.
Their insurance may come up $30,000 to $40,000 short, he estimated.
While both men have had careers, they both have health problems now and are on fixed incomes. So coming up with that extra money to pay the gap between costs and insurance payouts will be tough.
The tornado damaged more than just Rainone and Fowler’s home. Rainone had a seizure before the couple was able to find somewhere to stay, and he ended up in the hospital.
He’s been dealing with other health problems as well: He’s HIV-positive and, since the storm, his viral load count began going up for the first time. His doctor is talking about changing his medication, he said, but the problem may be due in part to stress.
Rainone said he checked himself out of the hospital quickly, because he and Fowler needed to find a place to live that would take their dogs. They’re now living in an extended-stay hotel in Dallas and plan to stay there until their house is rebuilt.
Since they couldn’t move things themselves, they relied on movers. But that didn’t end well.
“What the storm didn’t destroy, the movers destroyed,” Rainone said, noting that their leather sofa, which had survived the tornado, didn’t survive being dragged across a concrete walk. And a box packed with crystal became a box full of glass shards when movers tossed it across the yard, he said.
Friends of the couple set up a GoFundMe page to help Rainone and Fowler replace everyday items, like clothing and pet supplies and to pay for things like doing laundry, which can get expensive at a hotel laundromat.
One of their cars was damaged and isn’t running, and the other car is having problems since the storm. But more than anything, the two men are worried about getting back and forth from Dallas to their medical appointments.
How you can help
MetroTex Realtors has activated a national disaster relief fund to help with immediate needs of those impacted by the Dec. 26 tornadoes. The National Organization of Realtors sent $200,000 to MetroTex Realtors to help people who lost their homes with rent, mortgage payments or temporary housing. Anyone affected by the tornadoes may apply for $1,000 in assistance, according to MetroTex President Russell Berry.
The money became available the second week of January and about half of it has been distributed, Berry said. The remaining money will be available until the end of the month.
Berry said it’s easy to apply for help on the Texas Association of Realtors website. The application is under the “Our Impact” pull-down menu.
Berry said one of the challenges has been where to send the checks, since mail can’t be delivered to the affected homes. “Most of the communities are at a standstill,” he said.
About 1,100 homes were affected in Dallas, Collin, Rockwall and Ellis counties. Most people have cleared out the debris from their homes and are waiting for it to be hauled away.
“Insurance companies have done a great job getting people into housing,” Berry said.
But rental rates, which were already high, have risen higher because of demand. And people who prefer to buy new rather than wait to rebuild are finding there’s little inventory. In cities like Rowlett, there’s virtually none.
Berry said he’s hearing most people are planning to rebuild and insurance companies are doing a good job of paying to replace and restore houses to what people had — up to the insured value.
As Fowler watched everything being thrown out from his house, he said he felt unnerved.
“I felt like I died watching everything thrown out,” he said.
Rainone hopes their ordeal will be over in the eight months promised.
“All I want to do is go home,” Rainone said. “You don’t realize what you have til it’s gone or what it meant to you.”
The Fowler-Rainone GoFundMe page can be found at https://www.gofundme.com/pzgq3uyk.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 22, 2016.