Soaked state begins cleaning up

A sunny beautiful day greets flooded homes, blackouts, destruction

September 18, 1999|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

With a mix of awe and resignation, Marylanders began to clean up yesterday in the sunny but terrible wake of Hurricane Floyd.

Pumps churned and chain saws buzzed from Elkton to Crisfield as homeowners and highway crews labored to repair the storm's damage. They moved lakes of storm water and cleared mountains of downed trees and limbs to return life in their storm-tossed communities to normal.

In flood-stricken North East in Cecil County, Jim and Patricia Hamilton and their two children returned home to find their windows smashed by fallen limbs.

Their furnace and air conditioner were under water, and the North East River gave up a carp to son Lucas, 10, who fished where their driveway used to be.

"This is the worst I've ever seen it all my life," said Jim Hamilton, 48. He might have spoken for all Maryland -- where just one death was attributed to the storm -- as he tried to put his own predicament in perspective: "Damage, we can always fix that. But someone getting hurt, it could have been a whole lot worse."

Across the region, motorists navigated detours and crept through intersections with darkened traffic signals, while rail commuters worked around a storm-shortened light rail system and crippled train service.

Back at home, school kids enjoyed another day off. For their parents, it was the first day of what could be a long wait for utility crews to restore miles of damaged electrical lines. That job could stretch into next week.

The scope of the hurricane's impact on Maryland was still sinking in yesterday. Quentin Banks, spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) said 13 of the state's 23 counties reported flooding, and at least 255 roads were closed in 14 counties in the storm's wake.

Wind and rain triggered nearly half a million power outages across the state, Banks said. Rainfall ranged from under an inch in Western Maryland to 14 inches in a 36-hour period in Queen Anne's County on the Eastern Shore.

Winds gusted 55 to 60 mph, with the strongest -- 71 mph -- reported in St. Mary's County.

MEMA officials were touring the worst-affected regions yesterday to assess the damage, but no preliminary estimates were available, because some of the high water had not yet receded. "It has to go down before you can do the assessment," Banks said. "You can't just do it from a helicopter."

The flood damage at North East drew early attention from emergency management officials and politicians.

Cecil County received 12 inches of rain. More than 60 roads were closed and 200 to 300 people were forced out of their homes. North East officials said at least 20 families still couldn't go home yesterday, and 50 to 75 homes have been severely damaged.

MEMA Director David McMillion, who met with Maryland Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes in North East yesterday, said the North East River swept over both Route 272 bridges serving the town. The raging brown water carried a huge shed onto the southbound span and eroded the nearby banks.

The southbound span was reopened yesterday, but divers were inspecting the northbound bridge and construction crews were rebuilding the riverbanks. The U.S. Coast Guard was also assessing damage along the river and looking for spilled petroleum.

It was not yet clear whether the county or its residents would be eligible for federal assistance. "It's going to take some time to get the assessment completed," said McMillion. In nearby Elkton, old-timers told Mayor Robert Alt that floodwaters this week reached parts of town untouched by Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972.

"We've lost almost everything," said Thomas Ruggiero, owner of Smokin' Joe's Cafe at Main and Bow streets. Chairs and booth cushions in his darkened restaurant were tossed about as if in a brawl. The place smelled of fuel oil. "It was coming through like the Colorado River," Ruggiero said.

Next door, Barry Chidester said his stained-glass crafting tools, his business records and computers all were soaked by floodwaters. "I don't know what I'm going to do," he said. "I can't replace this stuff. It's taken me 21 years to be able to afford this [business]."

More than 100 miles south, in Crisfield, some low-lying streets remained under water at midday as homeowners and merchants tried to assess damage caused by 10 inches of rain and a high tide almost 6 feet above normal.

Kenny and Kathy Rees lost everything in the basement of their house on Richardson Avenue -- furnace, water heater, washer and dryer. Their freezer was floating in 4 feet of water. Outside, mowers and lawn equipment in a shed were ruined.

"I'm going to find out how good our insurance really is, I guess," said Kathy Rees.

Water had receded from Crisfield's Edward W. McCready Memorial Hospital, where the tide lapped at emergency room doors for several hours. Standby generators kept the electricity going, and National Guard and state highway department trucks brought hospital staff members to work through water 4 feet deep.

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