Two months ago, Mother Nature's winds drove Marlene Allen out of her rented North Avenue rowhouse. Yesterday morning, Ms. Allen returned to paint the house -- only to find it and two neighboring houses ablaze from the matches of arsonists.
"I can understand the tornado because that was Mother Nature's doing, but the fire is inexcusable," said Ms. Allen, a 43-year-old former office clerk who had signed a new lease on the house last week. "It hurts to know someone would ruin something of yours."
Homes on the 1100 block of E. North Ave., near Aisquith Street, were ravaged by a November tornado that swept through the neighborhood.
Ms. Allen's three-story brick house lost its roof, and heavy rains crushed the ceiling through to the second floor. That ruined new mattresses she had bought for her three children, a $5,000 living room suite, clothes and her refrigerator, she said.
About a foot of water stood in the house when she returned two weeks later. Ms. Allen, a cousin and her landlord began cleaning the house, throwing out soiled clothing and mattresses.
Yesterday, Ms. Allen had planned to finish painting the kitchen and two second-floor bedrooms. "I was coming down the street and I saw all the commotion with the firetrucks, but I wasn't sure where it was coming from," she said. "All I could see was red and orange flames leaping up into the sky, then I realized it was coming from my house."
Just one block from her charred home, Ms. Allen is living with relatives in the 1100 block of Hope St., where a shiny red front door stands out among spray-painted walls and overflowing trash cans.
"I'm living on Hope Street now and hoping nothing else will happen to my house again," she said with a chuckle. "At least no one was hurt in the tornado or in the fire, so I guess you could say we've already received a little hope and blessings."
Firefighters said the fire had been set and estimated the damage at $25,000. Police had no suspects yesterday. At least one other fire occurred in Ms. Allen's house this week, according to neighbors, but firefighters were not called.
"We've been through three disasters in the past few months," said John Patti, 52, who lives a few houses down from Ms. Allen. "The tornado, a small fire this week and this big one today. . . . I don't think we can handle another."
"Anytime a tornado and two fires come through here and some houses remain untouched and others get ruined, it isn't nothing other than prayer holding these walls up," said Ronald Busby, 53, a friend of Mr. Patti's.
But Ms. Allen says she's going back to North Avenue.
As firefighters were throwing piles of burnt clothing from second-story windows, she remarked, "I know people will say we can't fix this old house and I'm sure the landlord's not going to put any more money into it, but for some reason, I just can't let go of this house.
"Even though this is a raggy neighborhood with its share of problems, I don't worry because I don't live for the block. I think if we put our minds to it, we can rebuild."