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Harmony House residents settle into new but familiar home

Shelley Nelson / Harmony House II, 7613 John Ave., is open for business and hosting an open house from 2-4 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 18, four days before the one-year anniversary of the original house being struck by lightning. The original house was demolished and the new one built on the original foundation.

Nearly a year after lightning struck Harmony House II and started a fire in the roof, residents are settling into a new home built on the foundation of the original assisted living residence.

The foundation, landscape, plumbing and in-floor heat are all that remain of the original house that burned Sept. 22, forcing residents and staff to evacuate for nine long months.

"Superior Rehab was absolutely wonderful with us," Harmony Houses owner Sharon Kotter said.

Kotter had long ago contracted with the Superior Rehabilitation Center in Billings Park in the event an emergency forced the evacuation of Harmony House I or Harmony House II.

"We didn't know we were going to evacuate for nine months," Kotter said.

However, the slow progress to recovery did have one benefit. Kotter said when Harmony House I was forced to evacuate during the Husky Refinery explosion in April, they were ready for it at Superior Rehabilitation Center. They doubled the beds in each of the private rooms, and the facility provided additional meals to accommodate the residents of Harmony House I.

"It's been a long haul," said Tammy Susens, Kotter's daughter, who plans to take over as administrator of both Harmony Houses when her mother retires.

Following the lightning strike, which burned everything above the ceiling, inspectors made their way through the house, which had started to mold because of the wet weather. Between the cost of repairing the fire damage and remediating the mold, the decision was made to demolish the original house and build new on the original foundation.

However, just getting started took time. Susens said they were ready to begin demolition at one point but the insurance company stopped it until they could finish their work.

"They didn't release us to demo until after Thanksgiving," Susens said. She said by time the original house was demolished, it was already into December.

Building the new house proved difficult last winter because of snow slowed work and deep cold prevented nail guns from working properly, Susens said.

"It just kind of sat until it warmed up," Kotter said. "Once they got it framed in, they could put ... heater blowers in here so they could actually work on it."

Susens said it seemed bare inside the home for a long time, but once the electrical and ventilation was in and inspected, and the Sheetrock started to go in, things started to move pretty fast.

Once the building occupancy permits were issued in late June, Susens said they were able to start setting up the house and residents' rooms with their belongings, which had been cleaned by Paul Davis after they were recovered from the home after the fire.

Kotter credited the first department's decision to cut holes in the ceilings over the hallways during the fire — allowing the water and mess to spill there rather than in residents rooms — with saving most of people's belongings.

When the state occupancy permit was issued July 12, it was time for residents to move home.

They didn't quite have all of their stuff at the house yet, but they were willing to trade watching TV in the living room for a couple of days to enjoy home cooked meals in their air conditioned home, Susans said.

"It's nice to be home," said Christa Vendela, a staff member who was working at Harmony House I the morning of the fire. She said it was the home cooked meals, being about to go outside and being able to play games in the less institutional setting of the house that people missed most.

Shelby Hobson, who helped with the evacuation last year, said the people at Superior Rehabilitation Center were good to them while they were there, but it's good to be home.

An open house is planned for 2-4 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 18, at the new house, 7613 John Ave., four days before the one-year anniversary of the fire.