ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It sounded like a barrage of machine-gun fire, loud, scary and so incessant that guests at Casa Esperanza tumbled out of their rooms to find out who was under attack.
It was coming from the skies, which had opened up and sent huge hauls of hail, some as big as golf balls, crashing into the large skylight in the lobby and several smaller ones throughout the 18,000-square-foot nonprofit’s facility near the University of New Mexico North Campus.
The storm had also caused cracks in the flat roof of the territorial-style building, a home away from home for families whose loved ones are being treated at area hospitals for serious diseases and medical conditions.
“They never heard anything so loud as that hail,” Executive Director Chrisann Gray said of the July 30 storm. “I think we just happened to be in a place where it hit really hard.”
They didn’t know yet just how hard.
Two nights later, another storm struck, this one unleashing gushes of rain that seeped through and broke open the cracks in the roof, soaked through the walls, the stucco, the furniture, the light fixtures and fans and left a half-inch of coppery water on the floor.
The damage from the Aug. 1 storm was significant. And the rain wasn’t stopping.
Despite it all, Gray said it could have been worse.
“We were really lucky,” said Gray, the irony of her comment not altogether lost on her. “We had moved the families out the day before that second storm, so it was a blessing that all that water didn’t get on them, their medications or medical equipment.”
By pure coincidence, a planned remodeling of the 26-year-old facility’s kitchen and dining area had been scheduled to begin July 31 with two days of jackhammering up old tile and tearing down old cabinets.
Some of the furnishings had already been moved and covered in plastic. The families had been temporarily placed in hotels and other facilities and were schedule to return in about three days.
Now, it could be three months.
The remodeling is on hold, and the restoration is expected to be extensive and expensive. For the first time since opening its doors in 1992, the Casa is closed.
That, for Gray, hits harder than a hail stone.
“These families are like our family,” she said, the usually talkative woman momentarily unable to speak as the tears come. “They stay with us on and off during some of the hardest moments of their lives – a child being treated for cancer, a husband undergoing kidney dialysis. A majority of our families are moderate to low income. I’d say 94 percent are low income. They get a bad diagnosis, they have to travel here for treatment, find a place for them or their families to stay.
“Before us, some of these families had to sleep in their cars or in waiting rooms or put off treatment altogether, so the illnesses became worse. I think of these families and just want to get us up and running again and back to what we do.”
What they do, what they did, was offer a comfortable room – 16 singles, 12 two-room suites – at a nominal cost of about $40 a night or less for those in greater need.
A large kitchen provided a place for families to store and prepare their own meals, with more than 140 business, church and service organizations sponsoring dinners for the occupants on most nights.
“You can imagine spending a day in the hospital with your loved one and coming back here to a meal already made,” Gray said.
Since its beginning, she estimates that Casa Esperanza has served more than 41,000 families, or about 1,500 to 1,600 families a year.
As we walk through the shuttered building, it’s apparent how much work has already been done and how much more work lies ahead. Dozens of industrial fans and dehumidifiers are lined up in the hallways, the job of sopping up the flood completed for now. Ceilings are gashed open, holes are covered with blue painter’s tape, sheetrock is ripped away or water-stained. Most of the mattresses will have to be thrown out.
For now, a temporary silicone sheeting serves as roofing while insurance adjusters continue to calculate the cost of repairing the place.
Gray said she has not yet received a dime of insurance money and is relying on the good graces and patience of Paul Davis Restoration and Dreamstyle Remodeling – and her own family.
Already she knows the insurance money won’t be enough to cover all that has been lost.
“I have all these people on hold – the contractors, the staff, these families,” Gray said. “We are asking the community to find it in their hearts to help us during this challenging time.”
She has hope, she said. Because that’s what Casa Esperanza is. Because that’s what it means when translated – House of Hope.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.