Making `Isabel Park' home

Trailers: FEMA is providing temporary residences for those displaced by the storm.

December 01, 2003|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

When Bill and Mary Spence describe their temporary residence in Bowleys Quarters, they conjure up images of something cozy. A cabin in the woods, perhaps. Or a bungalow by the sea.

But the couple, forced out of their home because of damage from Tropical Storm Isabel, are camped out in a 30-foot trailer on an empty lot a block away. They are among about 180 displaced families statewide living in trailers through a federal disaster relief program.

"To me, home is where you make it," said Mary Spence, 78, who decorated the interior of their trailer with wall hangings, a stuffed Thanksgiving goose, curtains and a lace tablecloth. "I've tried to make it look presentable. To be honest, living here is really not that bad."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has made a practice of providing trailers to victims of disasters nationwide, including those displaced by Hurricane Floyd in North Carolina in 1999.

In the wake of Isabel, FEMA has provided trailers to families in 10 counties around Maryland for as long as 18 months. The largest concentration of trailers is in Dorchester County, followed by Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties. In addition, the agency is processing more than 200 applications for trailers.

Once a family has been approved for a trailer, FEMA sends a team of contractors to set it up on or close to the family's property. Most residents say that proximity to their damaged homes is the greatest benefit of their trailers.

Sitting close together on the tiny couch inside their trailer on a recent day - a torrential rain pounding on its roof - the Spences said that before their temporary home arrived, they were driving more than an hour each day from their daughter's residence in Pasadena to oversee the work on their home.

"Now we're able to see each step that is made, which is one step closer to being home," said Bill Spence, 80. "Before the trailer, we would be here all day trying to get things done but would have to leave before dark because our eyes are bad."

The Spences' trailer sits on what used to be a vacant lot and is now occupied by seven trailers - three of them provided by FEMA - in a cluster residents have nicknamed "Isabel Park."

The trailer - 32 feet long and 16 feet wide - is cramped. But the Spences say it has all the amenities they need: one bedroom, a kitchenette, a small dining table, a couch with a pull-out bed, a bathtub, a large refrigerator, a microwave oven and a stove.

Mary Spence said the trailer is easy to clean and that she and her husband enjoy socializing with the residents of neighboring trailers, who jokingly call themselves "Baybillies."

Still, she said, "I can't wait to get back into our house."

The desire to remain at home - even a damaged one - is one of the reasons some storm victims have not applied for trailers, according to FEMA officer Jack Schuback.

"Everyone wants to stay in their home if they can," he said. "But the general reaction from most people to the trailers is that if they have the option, they would like the ability to stay on their property while they make repairs."

Schuback added that FEMA is encouraging those who might qualify for a trailer to apply before the state's Dec. 8 deadline for disaster assistance. He said the process - from the application to the trailer rolling up to the yard - can take less than a week. In addition, the agency provides trailer residents with 24-hour assistance for any problems with their temporary home.

"A lot of people have said, `No, a trailer is not acceptable for our family,'" he said. "But then they go to stay with relatives, and after a while, they change their mind. ... The trailer is a pretty good deal."

To decide whether people qualify for a trailer, FEMA caseworkers consider several factors: applicants' family composition, the extent of damage to their home, and the results of an on-site examination of their property to determine whether it can accommodate a trailer.

In some cases, applicants have to free up space on the property before they can receive one. To make room for their trailer, Bowleys Quarters residents Lynne and Wayne Blackmon had to chop down two trees and trim the limbs of another.

"We lost our house, so what else can we do?" said Lynne Blackmon, adding that the trailer means she and her husband can keep their home secure. Before its arrival, the Blackmons were staying at their daughter's house, an hour away in Pasadena. During that time, their garage was looted.

In Anne Arundel County, Bayside Beach resident Debbie Allen said she also prefers trailer living to leaving the remnants of her home. After her two-story, wooden waterfront home was ravaged by floodwaters from the storm, Allen, a mother of three, spent more than three weeks living out of a motel in Glen Burnie. Recently widowed, Allen said it was difficult to be without her children - ages 15, 18 and 22 - who were staying with various friends.

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