`You fall down, you get up'

Rock Hall

Tropical Storm Isabel: Six Months Later

March 21, 2004|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

ROCK HALL - As town manager, Ronnie Fithian had plenty to keep him busy on the morning after Isabel. First on the list was rescuing his 83-year- old sister, Katherine Bringer, from the second floor of the flooded bungalow where he grew up.

In a johnboat with an outboard motor, Fithian putted down Route 20, the main drag in this old watermen's town of 1,600, headed through the back door and steered straight into his sister's kitchen.

She waited at the foot of the stairs.

It all sounds surreal now, Fithian said, especially considering that this rescue took place in 4 feet of water in a house that sits a good half-mile from the Chesapeake Bay.

"If somebody had told us there'd ever be a hurricane with 8- to 9-foot tidal surge, we'd have thought we'd be gone," said Fithian, who has supervised a half-dozen municipal employees in his hometown for seven years.

But they aren't gone.

Half a year later, a few people have moved away. A dozen or so are living in mobile homes provided by the federal government. Others, most without flood insurance, are bunking with relatives, waiting to move back home, making piecemeal repairs as they can afford it.

Fithian said 80 buildings in town were damaged and many are being put right. He and other town workers spent weeks hauling away 456 tons of soggy debris, anything that residents could drag from their homes and pile in their yards.

The town has issued 12 demolition permits. A few other damaged houses, mostly those that were second homes for weekend boaters, have been left unrepaired and might be torn down.

Residents lost more than 100 cars in the storm. Fithian, a former waterman and two-term Kent County commissioner, remembers chuckling at the time that it might be difficult explaining to his insurance agent how the windshield of his station wagon was broken by a speeding personal watercraft.

But not a single boat was lost. Rock Hall is a town that has always been home to watermen and now boasts that it is the "pleasure boating capital of the Eastern Shore" for the hundreds of boats kept here.

Most of about a dozen marinas in town are ready for business. Near the town dock, a crew is working feverishly to finish a total renovation of the landmark Watermen's Crab House, which, with 80 workers, is one of the largest employers.

A sign at the edge of town promises that the place will be open next month.

Margaret Parry and Pat Ray, next-door neighbors who married brothers Robert and Thomas Parry, aren't going anywhere.

Their cul-de-sac ends at the Chesapeake Bay on property that has been in the family since the 1940s. Like most of their neighbors, they didn't have flood insurance.

Luckily for them, several family members are in the construction business. Both houses are works in progress, with repairs being made little by little as money and time allow.

Meanwhile, the spectacular sunsets and the views of downtown Baltimore, the Key Bridge, Sparrows Point and the Bay Bridge are there on every clear day.

They aren't going anywhere either.

"You fall down, you get up," Ray said. "It's life."

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