After Tropical Storm Irene, Home At Last: Taftsville Man Gets a New Start in Windsor
Paul Efstathiou walks through his property to his new home on Christmas Day in Windsor. The small cabin, built by Upper Valley Habitat for Humanity, sits on the land that Efstathiou camped on for months after losing his rental home to Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011. (Valley News - Ryan Dorgan) Purchase photo reprints »
Paul Efstathiou stands near a pile of firewood at his new home. (Valley News - Ryan Dorgan) Purchase photo reprints »
“When I can invite people up here and feel comfortable, I’ll feel better about a lot of things.”-- Paul Efstathiou (Valley News - Ryan Dorgan) Purchase photo reprints »
Paul Efstathiou looks out on the Windsor property he has owned since 1987 from the window of his new cabin built with help from Habitat for Humanity. (Valley News - Ryan Dorgan) Purchase photo reprints »
Recent developments have left Paul Efstathiou with mixed feelings about Tropical Storm Irene.
His housing situation was tenuous even before the August 2011 storm flooded the Taftsville home he was renting from a friend. After the storm, he stayed with friends off and on before moving into his truck, then into a tent on land he owns in Windsor. It was, to put it gently, a hard time.
But there was a benefit. The storm and his subsequent homelessness created a moment of crisis. He had to do something to secure long-term housing.
“I think what it did, was it forced me to say, this is your land, you’ve got to do something here,” said Efstathiou, who runs his own tree service company. He had hoped to trade work with a carpenter to get a small cabin built on his property in Windsor, but as winter approached, those plans hadn’t materialized.
A little over a year after Irene, Efstathiou contacted Upper Valley Habitat for Humanity. This fall, all the pieces came together. Habitat marshaled volunteers and in a couple of months built a snug, two-story cabin. Efstathiou moved in just before Christmas.
The cabin, just 12 feet by 16 feet, is well insulated. With the small Jotul woodstove going, it’s almost too warm inside, Efstathiou said. It has a sleeping loft, which Efstathiou said he’d like to extend to make a full second floor.
Habitat built the cabin for less than $10,000, said Don Derrick, executive director of the White River Junction-based nonprofit. That’s far less than the cost of the typical Habitat project, partly because the cabin was so small, and partly because some of the building materials were donated from a property in Norwich. Dartmouth College students spent weekend days pulling nails out of boards. Volunteers and Habitat staff put in three work days a week, with one day a week staffed entirely by employees of Hypertherm, the Hanover-based maker of plasma-cutting tools.
Derrick pointed to the loft flooring and the 2-by-12 rafters, all taken from the Norwich site. “It was slick,” Derrick said. “There was a lot we didn’t have to buy.”
The project is unique, and likely can’t be replicated, he added. “This confluence of events is never going to happen to let us build this for $10,000 again,” he said.
Work started on Oct. 17, Derrick said, and ended Dec. 15. Efstathiou still needs to tape and sand the drywall joints and trim the window interiors. The cabin has a composting toilet, but no shower or sink. Efstathiou can get showers at the apartment his wife, from whom he is long separated, and one of his daughters share in Windsor. There’s a plug that runs through the wall for generator power. Eventually, grant money from the state’s Irene relief fund might pay for on-site septic and electric service.
He also received help from friends and clients. A longtime client from Pomfret provided a generator, volunteered time and labor and once bought lunch for the work crew. Another man, Peter Lang of Fairlee, contributed two free cords of seasoned firewood.
“If you want to really help someone, you ask them what they need,” he said.
Even before the cabin was finished, Efstathiou was attached to his land. He didn’t want to ask anyone for shelter again. He lived last summer and fall out of a pair of tents, and if Habitat hadn’t come through was planning to tough it out through the winter.
“I was bound and determined I was not going to leave here,” Efstathiou said. “I was going to winter it out in a winter tent with a heater.”
That included Super Storm Sandy. Although a neighbor offered shelter, Efstathiou stayed put in his tent, just a few feet away from the cabin, then just a floor and walls. He hammered in angle braces on the cabin walls, which groaned in the wind. His tent tore, and water flowed under his bedding.
“It felt like a jet fighter and a tidal wave going over this property,” he said.
Efstathiou’s property, not quite eight acres with views toward New Hampshire and Mt. Ascutney, has become the focal point of his attention.
The independence the cabin affords Efstathiou has improved his outlook on life, which had been sorely tested. In his hour of need, many people he knew couldn’t figure out how to relate to him. The fabric of his social identity needs mending.
“When I can invite people up here and feel comfortable, I’ll feel better about a lot of things,” he said. Then, he can “be a social person again.”
His financial situation is still tenuous, as property owners have put off tree work in the current economy.
But he moved into the cabin a few days before the season’s first snowfall, a scenario that just a few months before would have seemed like a miracle.
Not long after Irene, Efstathiou met a Massachusetts man in the parking lot of the Taftsville Mennonite Chapel. The man told him, “ ‘This is going to be the angel in disguise,’ ” Efstathiou said.
“I kept waiting for that angel to manifest,” he said. “Once Habitat hit the property, most of the time I was in awe or in shock.”
“It just doesn’t seem real,” he said. “It just doesn’t seem real at all.”
Alex Hanson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3219.