Damage, flooding are taken in stride

Fells Point

Tropical Storm Isabel: Six Months Later

March 21, 2004|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Geoffrey Footner has a pretty good feel for what goes on in Fells Point. All that separates him from the historic district's cobblestone streets is a wall of glass in his cozy home office on Fell Street.

Through those windows, Footner watched early Sept. 19 as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Isabel crept ever closer, eventually ruining 15 boxes of irreplaceable research notes stored in his cellar.

And through those same windows, the self-trained author of three maritime books has watched as Fells Point dried out and shook off the effects of its inundation six months ago.

"Nadine suffered terribly," Footner, who is 80, said on a recent rainy morning as his cat Herman purred on his lap. "She was really victimized."

Nadine is Nadine McNeill Gussio, owner of the Frame House across the street. Today the frame and souvenir shop looks the same as it ever did. The flood put 3 1/2 feet of water in her store, causing $50,000 in uninsured damage and forcing Gussio to close for three weeks last fall.

But Footner is not one to dwell on such losses. He is quick to agree that the waterfront area fared well compared with devastated areas of eastern Baltimore County.

In Fells Point, every building is still standing, and most businesses have long since reopened, except for the Inn at Henderson's Wharf. His neighborhood, he said, prides itself on surviving adversity.

At Bertha's restaurant, one of his haunts, "it would be unlikely that somebody would put their head on the bar and start screaming misery," said Footner.

Like Mayor Martin O'Malley and many in Fells Point, Footner thought they had bested Isabel. At high tide on Sept. 19 - about 2 a.m. - the flooding was not as bad as had been feared. But the water kept rising, pushed up the harbor by a storm surge.

After daybreak, Footner poked his head outside. To his left, cars were submerged; to his right, kayakers paddled about. In front of his 200-year-old home, water barely covered the sidewalk. But when he went to the basement, he saw what he calls the "shock of my life" - 3 feet of water.

By then it was too late to rescue the boxes of notes and documents he had used to write about ships and seafaring. (It occurred to him only later that he would need a new furnace.)

The notes would have come in handy on his latest project, a history of Fells Point, one of the oldest parts of Baltimore. But the loss has forced him, he says, to focus more on the area's social, as well as its maritime, past.

"That's a good result," he said.

As for the neighborhood's present, Footner gauges it partly on his travels, sometimes by bicycle. For example, John Steven Ltd., a bar and restaurant at Ann and Thames streets, has reopened, meaning Footner can again enjoy its mussels.

One of the few inconveniences for him involves the post office on Wolfe Street. It belatedly closed Jan. 12 for Isabel-related repairs, forcing him to go elsewhere.

Most days, he can be found at his writing table. His iMac computer is shiny new, but the rough-hewn wood tables and pressed-tin ceiling give the office an appropriately old feel.

Footner doesn't know how current his history will be in this new book. But even if it goes right to the present, the flood of 2003 might not make the cut. "It was such a routine event down here," he said, "that it might not be important enough."

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