In raucous meetings yesterday and last night, hundreds of residents of eastern Baltimore County packed the Bowleys Quarters Volunteer Fire Department hall and Sparrows Point High School, demanding that federal, state and local officials give them answers needed to rebuild their lives and homes in the wake of Tropical Storm Isabel.
Many in the crowd at Bowleys Quarters have been living for seven days in flood- and oil-soaked homes, without electricity, telephones and plumbing after Isabel's devastating storm surge flooded much of the east side's bay front. Many people lost thousands of dollars in property, including their homes, cars and personal belongings.
"I came here for help with housing because I keep getting conflicting answers," Rick Morris told patient officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Maryland Emergency Management Agency and other state and county agencies.
Morris - among thousands of people with homes that were damaged or destroyed in Bowleys Quarters, Sparrows Point and Turners Station - told the assembled officials his house on Nollmeyer Road was uninhabitable. He said he and his family have been forced to live in separate houses.
"What are we supposed to do?" he asked.
His answer came from Mary Ann C. Jackson, a FEMA representative, who said it is her job to see that people don't fall through the cracks. She arranged a meeting between Norris and another FEMA official, who she said would get him the answers he wanted.
The story was much the same last night at Sparrows Point High School in Edgemere, where about 500 residents crowded the auditorium to talk to state and federal emergency officials. People were angry that their insurance companies would not cover more - if any - of the devastation.
Some said they had been told by real estate and insurance agents that they didn't need or couldn't get flood insurance, only to find in the wake of Isabel that that wasn't the case.
"A FEMA official just told me that I'd been lied to, that you can live on top of a mountain and still buy flood insurance," said Barbara Barkers of Dundalk, who had just finished a 3 1/2 -year remodeling project on the now-destroyed house she purchased in 1998.
Much of the frustration was directed at FEMA and State Insurance Commissioner Alfred W. Redmer Jr., who tried to explain that he had no control over the federal flood insurance program.
"I think what they're saying is garbage. FEMA isn't helping one bit," said Mark Phoebus, 50, a disabled truck driver from Edgemere. He said FEMA officials haven't come to see his damaged house, and a neighbor told him that FEMA said she qualified for $48.96 in federal assistance. "It's utterly ridiculous what they're doing," he said.
The meeting in Bowleys Quarters was arranged at the request of the neighborhood's improvement association, which represents the county area perhaps hardest hit by Tropical Storm Isabel.
Government officials there listened for more than two hours, trying to answer questions about housing, insurance, property damage and the environmental impact on oil-soaked property.
Some residents were dissatisfied with what they heard and abruptly left. Some shouted to officials from the back of the hall, "What good are you?" when they didn't like answers they were getting. Others yelled, "Why can't we get some of the money headed for Iraq? We need help here!"
Nevertheless, most seemed to have three questions on their minds: When can a county inspector tell me whether my house is habitable? Will my insurance cover repairs? What can FEMA do to help?
To the latter, FEMA representative Jackson said there was plenty the agency could do, and that grants of several thousand dollars were available for housing, housing repairs, transportation and medical needs.
State officials took names and cell phone numbers from residents, promising to call with information about oil contamination.
They referred others to the county for questions about water safety and sanitary conditions.
Those wondering if their homes were habitable were referred to the county Emergency Operations Center in Towson.
Jackson urged residents to register with FEMA so federal officials could determine their eligibility for assistance.
Other questions raised by residents, and the responses, include:
Why were insurance companies taking so long to assess property damage? Insurance commissioner Redmer explained that processing insurance claims would be time-consuming because many of the carriers were also dealing with extensive damage in Virginia and North Carolina, where Isabel came ashore as a hurricane.
Why don't homeowner insurance policies cover damage to their property? Most of the damage was caused by flooding, and homeowners needed to be covered by a policy with the National Flood Insurance Program.
What is the deadline to apply for help with FEMA? Residents have 60 days after the area is declared a disaster to apply.