Still caught in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Isabel

November 27, 2003|By DAN RODRICKS

JACK BROTHERS stood in the gutted kitchen of his house on Galloway Creek the other day and pointed down a hallway to the big windows in an empty, cedar-paneled front room. The windows offered a pleasant view of a lawn shaded by a sprawling magnolia tree and, beyond that, the flat, green-gray water that leads to the Chesapeake Bay. Any other holiday week of the last 27 years, Jack would be sitting in his front room, admiring his little piece of Baltimore County waterfront, thankful for all the sunrises and sunsets on Galloway Creek.

But, in September, Galloway Creek turned into a monster.

It swelled and spread across Jack's front lawn in a furious surge. Then it knocked on his front door, pushed there by Tropical Storm Isabel. Jack stood in the kitchen he'd remodeled just a few years earlier and felt utterly powerless. "Never so helpless in my life," he said this week. "There was nothing we could do. You could look at the front windows and there were waves splashing against them. It was like being at sea."

Jack knew his house was in peril. Built in the 1930s, it stood on a brick foundation, a narrow crawlspace beneath it. When Isabel surged, the house was surrounded by 4 feet of Chesapeake water.

Jack and his wife, Annalee, went to a neighbor's house. The neighbor, Waring Justis, suggested that higher ground be sought and, believe it or not, there is such a thing in this stretch of eastern Baltimore County. With storm waters surging, a two- or three-foot grade can suddenly reveal itself like a mountaintop. The Brotherses got into Justis' large RV, and Justis drove it "up the hill" to a safer spot on Cold Spring Road. "That's where we spent the night," Jack Brothers said. They followed storm reports on a television in the RV.

The next day, they left to stay with a daughter in Perry Hall and, eventually, with another daughter in White Marsh. Their house was not livable or, it turns out, even salvageable. It will be torn down soon, one of more than 300 Baltimore County houses lost to the storm.

"I don't go down there very much anymore," says Annalee, on the phone from her daughter's home. "Too many things I loved were destroyed."

A couple of months have passed since Isabel came and went, and while those of us who were only inconvenienced by the storm regard it as merely memorable - something that soon will show up in the news media's retrospectives on a year of extraordinary weather - people like Jack and Annalee Brothers live in the storm's long, mournful, mucky and frustrating aftermath. There have been not only personal and financial losses, but headaches associated with cleaning up and trying to get local and federal relief, and dealing with insurance companies, hours and hours spent on phones and waiting in line.

"You wouldn't believe what I've gone through just to get a permit to demolish my house," Jack says.

Jack struck me as a congenial man who knows, all things considered, he's better off than lots of other people who had their homes and belongings washed away by Isabel. But there's a sadness in his eyes and a shrug in his shoulders. He's 74 years old, and at this stage of life he was not looking for an adventure beyond a good day on the bay in his 20-foot Sea Ray. Now he's looking at a new mortgage.

The storm inflicted so much damage on the house and its contents that renovating it on its present foundation made no sense. "What happens if [a tropical storm] happens again?" says Jack.

He had hoped his house could be raised - not razed. He looked into having a company lift the long, one-story building off its old, low foundation and place it on a new, higher one. But an engineer concluded that that feat could not be accomplished in a structurally sound way. So the house will be demolished. And Jack and his wife face the prospect of paying for a modular home with the $5,000 they got from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the payoff from their insurance company - 40 percent of "assessed value" of the house. (They had no insurance on its contents.) Jack had applied for a low-interest federal loan to pay for the new house but was turned down, one of many post-Isabel frustrations.

"But what can you do?" he says. "You have to go on, you can't roll up in a fetal position and stay in a corner."

So they'll have Thanksgiving dinner at their daughter's home in Perry Hall, and try to summon a word or two of thanks in a year when they and so many of their neighbors might look bitterly at what nature dealt them down along the craggy waterfront of eastern Baltimore County in a few dreadful hours of Sept. 18, 2003.

"What we lost were just material things," says Jack. "Material things are just that - material. Some things had a lot of value. We lost a lot of photographs, the family album, and some things that belonged to our parents. But no one expired. No one was hurt. We got out safely."

Maybe next year will be better. There could be a new house by spring, albeit with a monthly mortgage payment. "I can get a little excited when I think about [the new house]," says Annalee.

Maybe next year Thanksgiving dinner will be cooked in the new kitchen and served in a new dining room.

And the big magnolia tree survived the storm. It will stay, right by the new house, on the lawn leading to Galloway Creek. Isabel tore a little hole in Jack's Sea Ray, on the port side, by the bow.

"You want to buy my boat?" he asked.

But I think Jack was kidding. I'm guessing he'll keep the boat and patch the hole, and get back on the water, holding no grudge with the bay.

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