For many, rebuilding isn't over

Effects: Residents are still grappling with the aftermath of the devastating storm.

Tropical Storm Isabel: Six Months Later

March 21, 2004|By Rona Kobell and Andrew A. Green | Rona Kobell and Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Six months after Tropical Storm Isabel surged through Maryland, the sounds of rebuilding fill the streets from Bowleys Quarters to Shady Side. Jackhammers pound and buzz saws whir, while residents wonder how close the reconstruction will bring them to recovery.

Though Maryland's most destructive storm in recent memory ended for many residents when the lights flicked back on and the yard dried out, Isabel's legacy endures, particularly in Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Dorchester counties.

As they rebuild, hundreds of people are still encamped in trailers feet from waterlogged homes; thousands are fighting their insurers. The resiliency of those vowing to rebuild is stained with the fear of debt.

"People have said to me, `Get over Isabel. Aren't you through with that yet?'" said state Planning Secretary Audrey E. Scott, the state's Isabel recovery coordinator. "I say to them, `I'll get over it when the last person is back in their house, and not a minute before.' You just don't rebuild your house in six months. Isabel is going to be around for a long, long time."

Almost 18,000 residents called the Federal Emergency Management Agency's hot line after the storm, and the agency responded with $31 million in grants. The federal Small Business Administration, which works with FEMA, lent more than twice that to homes and businesses.

Many say that wasn't enough. Though the state has no estimates for total damage, the Isabel cleanup is expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Restoring the shoreline alone will eat up at least $69 million and could take 20 years.

Outreach teams set up

After the storm, the state established Isabel outreach teams that went door to door checking on victims. The teams work with the Maryland Interfaith Recovery Team, a group of ministers helping victims in need.

"The government had no idea there were as many people who needed help as there were," said Libby Pedrazzani, a member of a Baltimore County outreach team. "We have found so many people who need help and just didn't know what to do."

Insurance has become one of Isabel's most enduring headaches. Homeowners' policies don't cover floods, so the most severe damage was subject to the National Flood Insurance Program, which sells separate policies to homeowners and businesses in floodplains.

Many Isabel victims say they didn't understand the details of their flood policies before the storm, but they complain that their insurance agents and adjusters didn't either. The widespread dissatisfaction has led to pressure for program reforms from the Baltimore County executive, the Maryland insurance commissioner and lawmakers.

With about a dozen Isabel-inspired insurance bills winding through the General Assembly and the U.S. Senate preparing for hearings on the program, the insurance program's director has agreed to reforms. He will also review individual claims and, if necessary, increase settlements.

"I don't think I would have gotten another penny. They would have closed my case and been done with me," said Henry Hale, an Oxford man whose flood insurance complaint is being reviewed. "But because of all of the attention, they've been very attentive."

Insurance didn't cover damage to Havre de Grace's popular promenade, which Isabel splintered and pushed into the Chesapeake Bay. Federal, county and city funds will help pay the nearly $1 million to rebuild the half-mile boardwalk.

Utilities were scrutinized after the Sept. 18 storm's winds brought the bay into homes and more than 300,000 residents lost power. Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. is reviewing its response.

State officials worried that the high rebuilding costs might push middle-class residents off the waterfront, turning stable collections of bungalows into more upscale suburbs. A few residents have sold, but most are rebuilding along Baltimore County's quiet creeks, where more than 4,000 families sought FEMA help and nearly 100 still live in trailers.

`Starting all over'

The story is much the same in Anne Arundel County, where Isabel devastated waterfront communities along the county's 544 miles of shoreline.

"It's like starting all over again in life," said Jennifer Dieux, whose family is one of the 38 in the county living in trailers while awaiting repairs.

County officials estimated that more than 500 people are out of their homes, with about 2,600 seeking help to rebuild. Several hundred can't use their wells because of contamination.

As pleasure boating season approaches, many marinas look like construction zones. Steuart Chaney, whose two southern Anne Arundel marinas suffered millions of dollars in damage, is rebuilding without knowing what insurance will cover.

"You're talking about a storm that maybe lasted 10 hours destroying 25 years' worth of work," Chaney said.

In isolated Dorchester County villages, many homes were built without foundations, and the future is uncertain. On Hoopers Island, 50 families remain in trailers.

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