Third in an occasional series
RALEIGH -- The Millers stared at a gaping hole where their home once stood and tried to see the future.
A big wide porch. A garage where they can store collectibles. Doors wide enough for Ruby to eventually roll through in a wheelchair.
By year's end, Paul Sr. and Ruby Miller will move into a brand new home, far fancier than any that line North King Charles Road, the working-class neighborhood in East Raleigh where the family laid roots when IBM offered Paul Sr. a job transfer 32 years ago.
The tornadoes that ripped through Wake County on April 16 delivered such fury to the Millers' home that State Farm Insurance declared it unsalvageable. Across the street, their youngest daughter Allison Miller, a critical care nurse at Rex Hospital, also took a hit. Her home must be stripped to its bones and rebuilt.
Homebuilding is often thrilling, offering a clean slate to those eager to fit a home to their taste. For the Millers, it has been a test of spirit. They've been forced to level the home in which they raised three children, tended to aging parents and welcomed two grandchildren.
During the last three months, they've moved to unfamiliar surroundings and navigated complicated insurance claims. And they've strained to weed out unscrupulous contractors, the source of a neighborhood frenzy that left many along their ravaged street feeling overwhelmed.
The awful aftermath of the tornadoes for the Millers and hundreds of families like them brought a welcome shot in the arm to an ailing construction industry. The recession had left many in the building business without steady work for the last two years; some of the hungriest contractors, roofers and tree trimmers descended upon ravaged neighborhoods such as King Charles, looking for opportunities scarce just days before.
It was an encounter fraught with hazard. Both vendor and customer were desperate. Crews demanded cash payments and promised swift recovery.
"I know they were just trying to feed their families, but ours was in ruin, and it felt like they were trying to rip us off," said Allison Miller, 38. "They were in our face every second."
Eventually, the Millers beckoned builders that hadn't cruised down their street in the aftermath of the tornadoes. They finally settled on a father-son team, Eric and Curtis Smith, soft-spoken men who keep their Raleigh company small so they can do most of the carpentry work themselves.
On June 14, the Smiths brought a backhoe and a dump truck to Paul Sr. and Ruby's home.
The Millers and the Smiths looked on, shaded under a tent set up in a neighbor's yard. Grandchildren from both families flitted about, wide-eyed as the giant machine ate away at the house, knocking down walls, clutching mattresses and shattering windows.
It took 32 years to get the house just right. It took three days to tear it all down.
'It felt shady'
The first tree cutter came within 18 hours of the storm, cradling a chain saw as he walked around fallen oaks.
He promised to tackle the trees crushing Paul and Ruby Miller's home for $1,000 an hour. He urged them to book him before someone else did. No checks, just cash.
The men with chain saws kept coming, hurling price quotes that seemed incomprehensible. $4,500 or $7,500 to tackle the trees that fell on the Millers' house. Finally, a better bid came along: $3,000. But that guy was slow to finish and quick to complain about the work.
Next came the roofers and contractors. Some brought fliers and copies of their contractor's licenses. One man brought a résumé that bragged of his local ties and his brief stint playing in the NFL.
"It was like a parade on our street, but we had nothing to celebrate," Paul Sr. said.
For days, they came one after the other, stuffing fliers into their mailbox that promised much and urged the Millers to book them before they became too busy. Plus, Paul Sr., 73, has been struggling with his memory.
"It was such pressure. And, it felt shady," Paul Sr. said. "We came home and threw away one business card after another."
One contractor that the Millers invited to bid on rebuilding their home wanted to know the limits of their insurance coverage before putting a number on the job. Another put in a bid that matched exactly the cap on the Miller's insurance coverage; his estimate spooked the Millers, who wondered whether he'd somehow gained access to their policy information. Another promised to bury costs in a way to cash in on as much insurance payout as possible.
Tim Minton, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Raleigh-Wake County, said his organization had worried that the storms would unleash some unscrupulous contractors. He blamed crews coming in from out of town and some people who weren't licensed trying to get work.
Allison Miller told contractors offering sweet deals to take a hike.
The Smiths start work
Miles away, Eric and Curtis Smith, too, spent the days after the storm driving around damaged neighborhoods in northeast Raleigh.
They didn't hand out business cards. They said they climbed on roofs to help pull tarps across and reassured the people that their homes were fixable.
The Smiths had several renovations lined up and hadn't thought about trying to get a bite of the new business the storm would generate.
Paul Edward Miller, Paul and Ruby's son, called Curtis Smith a few weeks after the storm at a friend's recommendation. The two talked for a few minutes, and Curtis promised to come out and take a look.
"I'm sure he said it, but I just couldn't envision how bad these homes were," Curtis Smith said. "It was utter disrepair."
The Smiths spent an afternoon studying the wreckage and talking to the Millers about their hopes for a new home.
Eric Smith started out building homes 30 years ago, but every time the economy sagged, he returned to remodeling. In the good years, they built high-end spec homes in Raleigh inside the Beltline.
But these were not good years. Curtis joined his father full-time four years ago, but a year and a half ago, jobs were so scarce that Curtis wasn't working full days.
"This business will drive you crazy if you let it," Eric Smith said. "We've tried hard to not let that happen."
Within weeks, after Allison Miller had checked their references, the Smiths agreed to get back in the game of building.
Eric and Curtis Smith are unflappable. When Paul Sr. ranted about the food they lost in the basement during the storm, Eric Smith nodded. And when a backhoe towered over the Millers' home last month, Curtis squatted beside Ruby, handed her a mask to ward off the dust and assured her it would be OK.
The Millers see the gaping hole in the ground and have trouble imagining they will be home anytime soon. The Smiths are submitting plans to Raleigh this month to secure a building permit so they can start work.
They have promised to have the Millers in their home in time for Thanksgiving dinner.
Ruby jokes that she'll save them a seat at the table.
A change in routine
Ruby Miller, 67, who once worked as an emergency medical technician, struggles with crippling arthritis. She typically spends her summers gardening and canning.
Their grandson, Hunter, 9, stays with them and passes hours riding his scooter up and down King Charles. The dogs, hulking Labradors, run around the backyard chasing one another.
But in a giant apartment complex off Ray Road in North Raleigh, Ruby and Paul Sr. spend the day cooped up inside. The dogs' trips outside are limited to potty breaks every few hours. Hunter, son of the Millers' daughter, Kelly, watches cartoons and practices his baseball swing on a video game. They stare at the clock and wait for the next mealtime.
"I feel like I'm not on my game," Ruby said.
She frets about the new house, worried that she'll never feel at home there.
Plans call for 2,000 square feet, a basement, and a stone facade around the base of the house.
"It looks so fancy and out of context," Ruby said. "It will feel like I'm a guest in someone else's house."
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