Months after Isabel, recovery no nearer on Hoopers Island

Towns were struggling even before the storm hit

December 28, 2003|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

HOOPERS ISLAND - It has been more than three months since Tropical Storm Isabel ripped apart the watermen's villages of Fishing Creek and Hoopersville on this remote tendril of sand and marsh in Dorchester County.

People still wonder whether things will ever be the same.

While most communities hit hard by Isabel across the state are well on their way to recovery, these villages are still struggling.

The bridge and causeway that link the two communities are open only a portion of each day as road crews make repairs. The insurance investigators have come and gone, though most residents had no flood insurance or not enough. Federal disaster relief teams doled out 32-foot travel trailers, providing cramped, last-resort shelter for some whose homes are uninhabitable, but that's only a reprieve.

Some homeowners will qualify for low-interest loans to rebuild. Others might have to move 20 miles to the county seat in Cambridge or elsewhere to find places to rent.

"People in all our water communities have suffered a real trauma," says Thomas A. Flowers, 81, a longtime Dorchester County commissioner.

"If you're old and facing something like this, it's monumental. I do think that people in South Dorchester are survivors, though. They've always been strong people."

Flowers says county officials are worried that nearly 100 wells on Hoopers Island and in other low-lying communities such as Toddville, Crapo and Wingate across the shallow Honga River were inundated by saltwater, kerosene and other contaminants. There might be an equal number of septic systems damaged by the storm.

Residents say that although they got a portion of more than $120 million in federal disaster relief that went to Maryland, insurance settlements and other aid, Isabel delivered a lasting blow to communities that have suffered in recent years from a continuing decline in the commercial fishing industry.

Charity was an unaccustomed but welcome boost for 70 families that received holiday dinners and toys this month from the Salvation Army.

Many more who have always considered themselves "self-standing" now are thankful for the food pantry and the donated clothing that fill the fellowship hall of Hosier Memorial United Methodist Church in Fishing Creek.

Worshipers at a sister church, Hoopers Memorial in Hoopersville, have had to move Sunday services into their parish hall. Their 150-year-old church sustained $80,000 in damage when a storm-driven tide swept it off its foundation. Even those who can remember the Great Storm of 1933 or Hurricane Hazel in 1954 say Isabel was worse.

On top of it all, there have been half a dozen deaths in the close-knit towns, a tangible blow in communities with a combined population of perhaps 355. Most were elderly people who died after having to move from their damaged homes to assisted-living facilities or nursing homes.

For the Rev. Joseph Kelly, who came to the island in July, beginning his first parish job ministering to both churches, the assignment has become all-consuming. He has led most of the funerals since the storm.

Kelly, 39, who is alternately described by residents as a saint and a hero, proved his mettle by riding out the storm with the island's volunteer fire chief and a dozen or so others who refused to leave.

Now, Kelly and church volunteers coordinate relief efforts, sort out donations and handle calls from scores of people who need help or want to give it. What's really needed, he says, is a "Habitat for Humanity-type effort" to repair as many as 40 severely damaged houses in the two towns.

"This is tough for people who are 73, 75, who've lived in the same house all their lives," Kelly says. "When I first came here, you'd see a handful of `for sale' signs. Now there are 30 or 40. It's hard not to lose hope. I know at least 15 people just in Hoopersville who have moved off since the storm."

Lesslie Coulbourne, 61, a retired crab picker who worked most of her life in the island's seafood processing plants, isn't sure what the future holds. She and Lee Travers, a disabled 66-year-old truck driver, had lived together for 17 years in a mobile home, next door to her family's weathered white clapboard house that sits nearly at sea level, 100 yards from the Chesapeake Bay.

Since the storm ruined the mobile home, the couple has lived on the property in a travel trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

They know that FEMA rules will allow them to remain there for only six months.

"We're just hoping we can put together enough money to start over," says Coulbourne. "Thank the Lord that [FEMA] came through for us, but it really does drive me crazy in this little space."

Last week, Kelly took his first day off since Isabel. After an early morning of duck hunting, he returned to the parsonage to find six cell phone messages and 15 on his office phone.

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