Reinventing After You Lose Everything

A devastating fire and hurricane wiped out all these two women had. Then they got to work, rebuilding their lives

by Dana Hudepohl
Photograph: Morgan Rachel Levy

Linda Masterson: She faced the unthinkable

The night of Saturday, April 2, 2011, Linda Masterson and her husband, Cory Phillips, were fast asleep in the home they’d built on 72 forested acres in the Colorado mountains. Outside, the wind was howling so fiercely, it shook the gutters. Suddenly, at around 11, Masterson was awakened by a thundering boom! She ran to the glass doors leading to the deck and saw a crimson mass coming toward her. “It looked like a tsunami, only it was flames,” she says. “Cory and I talked for two seconds, and then he phoned our neighbors and woke them up.” Masterson ran through the house grabbing stuff and threw it into their two cars: suitcases packed with capris, T-shirts and computers for a Florida vacation (they were scheduled to leave on Monday morning), a pair of heirloom quilts she yanked off a banister as she flew by, their “fire bag” (an emergency-preparedness must-have she’d added to earlier that day, containing documents, medications and a little bit of family jewelry). Within 15 minutes, she and Phillips were navigating through clouds of smoke down a steep road with 800-foot drop-offs and no guardrails. “It was like driving through hell,” says Masterson. “When I looked up, the ridgetop was on fire. The flames were 100 feet high. All you think about is staying alive.”

The couple had moved to this mountaintop retreat 11 years earlier, leaving behind their fast-paced advertising careers in Chicago. They started a small, home-based marketing and communications firm and immersed themselves in their new community, hiking in the nearby national forest and volunteering with Colorado Parks and Wildlife; in 2006, Masterson published a handbook about living with bears.

Like bears, wildfire had become part of her reality. In preparation for their trip to Florida, she had taken pictures of the home’s interior so they’d have a record of their possessions, just in case. Now, two days after fleeing, they returned to a smoldering pile of ash and debris. Only a few dozen of the thousands of trees on their property had survived. “Our view in every direction was of giant charcoal toothpicks,” says Masterson. Gone were the house and its contents: 40 years of diaries; weekly letters Masterson’s father had written to her in college; their wedding album; the charm bracelet Masterson’s grandmother had given her when she was 13. “There was just a huge, gaping hole where our life used to be,” says Masterson. “In the blink of an eye, our past was eradicated.” She and Phillips followed through with their travel plans and made a small Florida cottage their home base for the next month. Seated at a window overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, Masterson listened to waves roll in while she typed a 100-page, 2,500-item list of everything they’d lost—the inventory required by their insurance company. At night she couldn’t sleep. “Whenever I closed my eyes, I would see the fire creeping into our home and devouring everything I loved, ” she says.

Eventually, Masterson and Phillips decided to return to Colorado and look for a new place to call home. With their insurance payout, they bought a house on three acres with views of the mountains they used to live in, and furnished it by shopping at thrift stores, antique shops and estate sales. “Buying things someone else had owned and loved helped the new place feel more like home,” says Masterson. She says she learned “more than I ever wanted to know” about stitching a life back together after a disaster. She wrote a short article for a newsletter put out by the volunteer fire department, and it inspired a book, Surviving Wildfire: Get Prepared, Stay Alive, Rebuild Your Life. Masterson’s nightmares returned while she worked on the project. “But I knew it was important to do it,” she says.

Just how much the book was needed became apparent in June 2012, when a wildfire swept through a different section of the mountains, destroying 259 homes. She went to evacuation headquarters at the local fairgrounds and saw 1,000 people waiting anxiously for news of their property. “Many told me that thanks to my article, they had purchased enough insurance,” says Masterson. She asked the fire chief for the microphone. “I told the survivors that no matter how bad the news, they needed to believe in their hearts that there was light at the end of the tunnel and to let people help,” she says. “You will be OK.” The crowd responded with tears, claps and hugs.

“I didn’t set out to be an example of how to start over, but I’m proud that’s what I’ve become,” Masterson says. “I’ve always been a glass-half-full-of--something-yummy person, and this has re-affirmed to me that you can survive things that are unthinkable.”

Laura DiPasquale: She found a silver lining

Three days after Hurricane Sandy pounded Laura DiPasquale’s neighborhood in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey, the National Guard allowed residents to return. As she opened her front door, DiPasquale was greeted by the stench of stagnant seawater. The carpet squished as she walked through the living room, spurting dirty water up onto her legs. “Every time you opened a door—to the washer, dryer, kitchen cabinets—water gushed out,” she says. “It looked like somebody came in, lifted all of our stuff and just threw it everywhere. The front porch railing was destroyed. The chain-link fencing around the backyard was bent. The hot tub that was on the deck? The force of the water had lifted it up and plopped it down nine inches away.”

Two days later, about 50 volunteers showed up to help the family clear away their possessions so the damaged floors and walls could be removed to prevent mold. They filled more than 100 garbage bags and piled them on the front lawn. But the group accidentally threw away undamaged housewares and mementos that had been stored up high, and DiPasquale was heartbroken. For several days, she sat on her front lawn digging through the garbage bags looking for fragments of her family’s life. She retrieved a few bagfuls of objects. One week later, sanitation workers hauled the rest away.

DiPasquale and her husband, Paul, had already experienced one natural disaster. In their twenties, the two New Jersey natives had moved to Los Angeles so that he could go to chiropractic school while she pursued acting. But in 1987, an earthquake so strong that its aftershock threw them out of bed made them change their plans; a year later, they returned to New Jersey. DiPasquale eventually set aside her dream of becoming a performer and started a deejay business. They raised two kids: Jackie, now 20, and Adam, 13. The couple built a two-story Colonial house two blocks from the beach. Over the years, when big storms headed their way, they evacuated. So last October, when Superstorm Sandy threatened to hit, DiPasquale packed up her two dogs, three frogs and a cat, and headed inland to her parents’ house, expecting to be home again in a day or two.

But Sandy turned out to be a once-in-700-years event, and the devastation was unprecedented. Structural engineers discovered that the winds had lifted DiPasquale’s roof, allowing water to seep in. Mold covered the walls and windows, and the couple had to throw out all the belongings they’d left upstairs. In the winter cold, the pipes burst. The van for the deejay business, where they stored the equipment and karaoke discs that had survived the disaster, was burglarized. Then DiPasquale’s father-in-law passed away from bladder cancer. “We were getting so beaten up and beaten down,” DiPasquale says. “We kept asking ourselves, ‘When is a good thing going to happen?’ ”

Still camping out at her parents’ home with her husband and son (Jackie was in college), DiPasquale clung to the comfort of domestic routines. She ferried Adam to soccer, band practice and guitar lessons. One day she posted a link on her Facebook page to a YouTube video of Adam jamming with his band. A colleague from her L.A. days shared the clip with an agent. Three months after Hurricane Sandy, DiPasquale found herself sitting in a New York City studio watching Adam’s band, Vin-Taze, perform in front of two Hollywood producers, cameras rolling. “It was the first day since the storm that I zoomed in on something fun and positive,” says DiPasquale. The group didn’t make it past a callback, but they were already focusing on their next big gig: a Superstorm Sandy benefit in which they would team up with celebrities. As spring gave way to summer, her son’s band landed more gigs. Prepping for shows and auditions with the kids brought some cheer to DiPasquale. It also stirred up her long-buried desire to perform. One day, DiPasquale started thinking about how determined she’d once been to sing and act. She’d even had a stage name, Laura Lee. She thought, That is who I am; I miss it. After her kids were born, she buried her dreams beneath the business of motherhood, but now she felt she’d been using the family as an excuse not to follow her heart. “Going through the storm was cleansing, literally and figuratively,” she says. “I said to myself, What are you waiting for?” In June she entered a karaoke competition and won. Then she auditioned for a community-theater production of The Wizard of Oz and got called back for the part of the Wicked Witch. Though she didn’t land the role, she felt a rush that came with returning to her performing roots.

In July, for her birthday, DiPasquale and her family partied at the beach, an annual tradition. “All the negativity went away,” she says. That night she performed at a local bar, and the deejay, an old friend, asked her if she’d consider auditioning for NBC’s The Voice. Without hesitation, she replied, “Why not? Laura Lee is back.”

What you can do to help

When a natural calamity strikes, who among us hasn't longed to lend a hand? This past summer, More staffers got the chance: 15 of us (along with 300 other volunteers from our parent company Meredith Corporation) swooped down on Gerritsen Beach, in Brooklyn, New York, where Superstorm Sandy had sent seawater into nearly all the homes. The nonprofit organization Rebuilding Together, which annually completes 10,000 projects using 200,000 volunteers, sponsored the event.

Associate editor Lauren Williams spent the day painting in one of the houses. “People were also repairing the deck,” she says. “The mom, the dad and their little daughter were living on the upper floor, and they kept coming downstairs to say how grateful they were.”

Mackie Siebens, an editorial assistant, hoped for an assignment “that would make me break a sweat,” she says, and she got it. The mission of her team, which included More’s -editor-in-chief and -managing editor, was to clean up and replant a community garden. Mackie spent the day digging and hauling wheelbarrows full of weeds and roots to a Dumpster.

To find out how you can volunteer, go to WeRebuild.com.

DANA HUDEPOHL is a frequent contributor to More.

Next: Profiles in Volunteering: Blazing New Trails

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First Published Tue, 2013-10-08 10:07

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