Isolated islanders seek aid Persistence: Two island women, a lifelong resident and a relative newcomer, are pressing the government for disaster help.

November 25, 1996|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

FISHING CREEK -- It would be hard to find a place in Maryland more remote than the three mismatched pieces of land known as Hooper Island.

It would be hard, too, to find a house or an outbuilding here not damaged by Hurricane Fran, which struck this small, close-knit community on Sept. 6. The storm shifted sea walls, tore chunks of land from the waterfront, flooded houses and stranded residents -- the worst display of natural fury many residents can remember.

Two months later, homeowners here are still hoping state, federal and local agencies will help them repair and rebuild. The storm damages, they say, are extensive enough to qualify them for disaster assistance. But their efforts to get help have not been successful.

"Is it because we ask for so little that no one takes notice?" asks Evelyn Robinson. "There are a lot of little people who need this money."

Robinson, who has spent her 71 years in Dorchester -- "If I had to be poor, I'm glad I was poor in Dorchester County," she says -- has joined forces with a relative newcomer in an effort to help island residents. Joyce Hill, 64, has owned a house in Fishing Creek since 1969, and divides her time between there and Washington, D.C., where she worked for Sen. Hubert Humphrey and other congressmen before retiring.

These two self-described "little old ladies in tennis shoes" have pored over the statutes, coaxed, bullied and badgered federal, state and local officials into asking the governor for help, made hundreds of calls and sent voluminous faxes to anyone they think might assist them.

So far, they've had no luck. Not a single inspection has been made by a local, state or federal emergency management agency of the damages sustained by the area, says Hill. Not a dollar in aid from public or private sources has found its way over the bridge legendary television anchor Walter Cronkite once described as "the bridge from nowhere to nowhere," she says.

But neither woman is ready to give up. "There is redress in these statutes for people who have been hurt," Hill says in a voice tight with indignation, as she reels off the state laws she believes apply to her community.

Copies of the statutes, and the correspondence she has sent and received, spill over the table in her tiny kitchen. Searching for something often means moving one of her seven cats from atop the teetering mounds of letters, documents, photographs and faxes.

The two women say they have made some progress in the search for help. Last week, the Dorchester County Commission belatedly asked Gov. Parris N. Glendening to declare the county a disaster area. That declaration, said Hill and others, is the first step in the process by which disaster-afflicted counties get state and federal assistance.

Once the gubernatorial declaration is issued, the Maryland Emergency Management Agency gets involved, and then asks the Federal Emergency Management Agency for help -- in the form of grants and low-interest loans.

But the governor has not declared Dorchester County a disaster area, and a spokeswoman in his office said such a declaration is not likely.

"They don't meet eligibility requirements under federal guidelines," Tori Leonard said last week. "Some of these folks are asking for money to pay for what are not their primary residences."

Robinson and Hill say the island does qualify. The storm damaged property and houses of at least 58 people, and there may be more who have not yet come forward, Hill says. They acknowledge that the island, which has a winter population of 300 and a summer population of about 3,000, has some summer homes. But it also has many elderly residents -- people who live there all year-round because they eke out a living catching and cleaning Chesapeake Bay crabs and oysters.

Both women say the area deserves special consideration from the state because many permanent residents are watermen and crab house workers. Between 30 and 40 crab houses are on Hooper Island, and many of the crabs that make Maryland famous are picked there.

"We do not have $100,000 homes," Robinson says. "We have elderly people on fixed incomes. They lost their freezers. We are watermen, trappers, farmers -- and we like to provide for the winter. But the storm knocked out all the freezers. We've always been able to help ourselves but this time, we need help."

Both women say that part of the reason for the lack of assistance is the remoteness of the community and the initial reluctance of many residents to ask for help.

That reluctance is apparent in the quiet determination of Ella Ruark, a painter who lives on the island.

Most of her furniture is still piled up on the second floor of her house, as are her paintings. She carried them up there after Hurricane Fran cut off her electricity, to protect them from water damage. Her house still has mildew on the walls, missing shingles and damaged bricks. And her stove is still not working (she's waiting for parts ordered from Utah).

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