Christmas Disaster Yields More Than Suffering

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What could be worse than a natural disaster on Christmas?

A powerful snowstorm on Christmas 2012 swept across the southern United States, killing three and spawning nearly 50 tornadoes.

In 2001, the city of Buffalo, NY was hit with an incredible 80 inches of snow in under a week, including Christmas Day. Two people died, and a state of emergency was declared.

All the way back in 1964, a rainstorm over the Christmas holiday melted nearly twenty inches of snow in Oregon and Washington, causing severe flooding and landslides that killed 17 people.

And on Christmas Eve 2004, my life was forever changed when an ice and snow storm rolled through the Ohio Valley, becoming the largest federally declared disaster in Ohio history. It had a disastrous effect on my life, too. However, now a dozen years later, I can see how it laid the groundwork for the work I do now, helping to keep homeowners at risk of foreclosure in their homes.

My Christmas story isn't one about redemption from crankiness, like the one that features Ebenezer Scrooge, or about how Santa leaves lumps of coal in the stockings of bad kids. It's simply about how a catastrophic event in my own life did, eventually, have a happy ending.

When the Christmas season dawned in December 2004, I owned over 4,000 apartments across the United States and had a net worth in the tens of millions of dollars. The storm devastated my largest holding, the 1,100-unit Woodland Meadows Apartments in Columbus.

Over the next 18 months, I was maligned, publicly shamed and financially gutted. I lost everything and ended up $26 million in debt. The experience was shattering.

But I was far from the only person whose Christmas was ruined by the 2004 winter storm. A report from the Illinois State Water Survey Center for Atmospheric Science calculated the total damages across six states to be nearly $900 million. Seventeen people died as a result of the storm, countless buildings collapsed, people were stranded, and many lives were severely impacted.

Picking up the pieces after a disaster is never easy. About 330,000 people in and around Columbus went without power, many until Christmas Day. This forced many families, including those at Woodland Meadows, to go without heat for days in sub-freezing temperatures. The Red Cross even opened a disaster relief center in the church across the street from Woodland Meadows.

For me as the owner, though, there wasn't disaster relief: I was saddled with tens of millions in debt I could not afford. Still, I tried to trudge forward and rebuild my failed business. But it didn't work out.

I only gained traction once I started American Homeowner Preservation in 2008. Drawing on lessons learned from the collapse of Woodland Meadows, I developed a strategy, a plan, and eventually a business model to help families on the verge of foreclosure stay in their homes.

As AHP grew, I was often asked to explain what happened at Woodland Meadows. This was difficult because, like many men, I tend to keep pain and sadness buried deep inside. I keep a hidden compartment in my brain where all the bad thoughts live. I try not to visit there often. That's where regret, sorrow, and bitterness dwell.

Sometimes my mind would relax, and a bad thought would escape and waft through my head. I'd quickly try to get my mind around it and push it back where it belonged. At times, I felt like the bad thoughts were overflowing, and it was like I was sitting on an overstuffed suitcase trying to keep them all in.

In 2014, I realized that I needed to end this. I flung the suitcase open and inspected the contents. I wrote as I went, sometimes crying and other times laughing. The product of this therapeutic self-reflection was a book, Burn Zones: Playing Life's Bad Hands.

I had suffered, but there was nevertheless a positive to my disaster. My challenges armed me with the skills to help families who suffer like I did - with unaffordable debt. Today, AHP crowdfunds the purchase of distressed mortgages from lenders at big discounts and then shares the discounts with struggling homeowners.

Twelve years ago, my Christmas Eve yielded pain and suffering. Today, though, that same Christmas Eve tragedy continues to bless.