IT'S BEEN nearly five months since Tropical Storm Isabel howled out of the sky and the black waters of the Chesapeake Bay came pouring through the four-bedroom rancher in Edgemere that John and Marcia Kennedy called their "dream home."
They fled in an aluminum boat that morning, just after dawn, when the water in the streets was as high as your neck and the air was thick with sparks from electrical fires.
When they returned the next day, it was to something out of a Red Cross documentary.
The house was in ruins. The furniture, the appliances, the clothes, their daughter Sabrina's wheelchair, the Dodge Caravan used to transport both of their disabled kids, the equipment for John's new lawn-cutting and snow-shoveling business - all of it was destroyed by the dirty, oily water.
"The water came up so fast," said Marcia Kennedy, remembering that horrible September morning in Baltimore County. "We tried to take measures. But it happened so fast."
Isabel was a huge story around here for days, but eventually it disappeared from the headlines, the way all these things do.
But for hundreds of families like the Kennedys, who lost everything in the storm, the past few months have been a nightmare.
These days, the Kennedys live with Marcia's brother in Essex, in a cramped, two-story rowhouse off Back River Neck Road.
But this can't go on much longer. There are six of them squeezed in with the brother now: John and Marcia, a 14-year-old daughter, Rachael, the 12-year-old twins, Sabrina and John Jr., and John's father, Ed.
Both of the twins have cerebral palsy. John Jr. walks with difficulty, but Sabrina is in a wheelchair.
Because the bedrooms are on the second floor, John or Marcia must carry Sabrina, who is adult-sized, up the stairs at night and back down the stairs each morning. It's a backbreaking chore.
"Thirteen steps," says Marcia Kennedy, 37, with a weary smile. "I've counted every one of them. Many times."
"You want to talk about stress," said John Kennedy, 39. "The stress is unbelievable."
In Edgemere and Bowleys Quarters and Millers Island, in Essex and parts of Dundalk, you hear stories about Isabel's devastation that will break your heart.
The government agencies and the legislators and the relief organizations, all of them say they're trying to help these flood victims get their lives back.
But John and Marcia Kennedy say mostly what they've gotten so far is a lot of talk - and a lot of empty promises.
The building contractors smile and hand out their business cards and mention prices for materials and labor that would make you clutch your chest.
The insurance agents show up in their fancy company cars with their leather briefcases and glossy brochures, and then hem and haw about when they can actually cut a check.
"I've talked to 40 different contractors - 40! - about rebuilding our house," said John Kennedy. "We went through pure hell just to get estimates. No one wanted to give estimates unless they [were guaranteed] to do the work."
The Kennedys consider themselves lucky in one respect: At least they had flood insurance. But it's a small blessing.
Here's why: The insurance company says it might graciously fork over $160,000 to replace the Edgemere rancher, which the couple had bought two years earlier for $115,000 after a long search.
Terrific. But now that the house has to be built 8 feet higher off the ground because of flood-plain regulations, the cheapest estimate John Kennedy says he's gotten from the builders is $260,000.
The Kennedys are working people. John is an auto mechanic. Marcia is a personal assistant at Battle Monument School. They can't come up with that kind of money, even from loans.
But with two kids with cerebral palsy living in a two-story house, they're desperate, too.
John's a handy guy. To cut costs, he says he'd be willing to do much of the rebuilding himself - with help from his brother-in-law and friends - if he could only find a licensed contractor who would be willing to work with him.
"I've thought of writing the whole thing off and heading out of state," said John Kennedy, rubbing his tired eyes.
"But we're not going to let him do that," said Marcia. "We want to go back to our home."
Replacing the Dodge Caravan is another horror story.
Originally, the insurance company said it would pay to repair the minivan, heavily damaged by salt water. In the meantime, John bought a used Ford pickup truck to go back and forth to work in.
But the repair job on the Caravan, done at a local dealership, was a disaster.
When they went to pick it up, "the roof was all black, the seats were covered with mold," Marcia recalled with a shudder. The Kennedys refused to take the Caravan back.
So now Marcia must lift Sabrina into the high cab of the F-250 twice a day to take her back and forth to school. And John commutes to his mechanic's job in Towson in an old truck held together by spit and a prayer.
Even if he sells the truck, he says, a conversion van with an access ramp that would accommodate Sabrina's new wheelchair costs about $50,000. Again, money the family doesn't have.
So for now, while the legislators pontificate and the government agencies regurgitate their pie-in-the-sky promises of aid for Isabel's victims, the Kennedys are just trying to hang on.
All they can do, they say, is hope and pray.
"We take it a day at a time," said Marcia. "No, we take it an hour at a time."
"I keep hoping for a better day," said John Kennedy. "What else can you do?"