Peninsula community's houses rising above it all

Millers Island

Tropical Storm Isabel: Six Months Later

March 21, 2004|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

The skyline is rising in Millers Island.

In the tiny community, which juts into the intersection of Back River and the Chesapeake Bay, low-lying houses are propped in the air, high above the water lapping at their lawns.

A house near the tip of the peninsula sits on makeshift wooden towers, waiting for a new foundation. Underneath it is a clear view of seabirds, water and distant Rocky Point Park.

Hinton Avenue is a patchwork of muddy lots, Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers and damaged houses lifted onto cinder blocks. Where some houses were leveled, tall new foundations are sprouting like the spring flowers whose bulbs survived the flooding.

Federal regulations say houses have to be built or renovated with the first floor at least 10 feet above sea level. So, six months after Tropical Storm Isabel, home after home in Millers Island is being lifted, monuments to residents' resilience and frustrations.

"In 10 years? We'll have this beautiful new community with beautiful new homes," said Bernice Myer, head of the Millers Island Community Association. "But that's scaring a lot of us, too."

Myer is worried about property taxes rising as the community rebuilds. Others fear that old-timers will be pushed out by investors eager for waterfront property. At the very least, they know that the look of Millers Island will change.

In the early 1990s, the federal government required that the first-floor living spaces of all new homes be built above flood elevation, said Tim Kotroco, the county director of permits and development management. The rules also apply to those making repairs costing more than 50 percent of their home's value.

Newer Millers Island homes, built in accordance with those regulations, survived Isabel with little damage. That's proof, Kotroco said, that the rules work.

Kim and Robert Poleski built one of those new houses, which they moved into in April. Rising from a 10-foot foundation, it sits on Cuckold Point Road, the southern leg of the peninsula's narrow, ladder-like streetscape.

The night of the storm, the French doors of the Poleskis' ground-level basement gave way. With water up to their necks, the couple fought off a 40-foot section of pier that had washed in and was banging against steel posts supporting their home. But the next day, except for the basement drywall, their house was undamaged.

"I'm fortunate I have a house to live in," Kim Poleski said. "So many people still don't."

John Dey and his fiancee can't live in their home at the end of the peninsula, although they see it from their FEMA trailer. Dey was one of the first to lift his house after the storm, paying for the work with a home equity loan.

The house that had taken him two years to remodel, he said, was destroyed in one day by the flood. In November, it took workers eight hours to jack the home into the air and four days to build a new foundation and lower the home onto it.

Dey does not know when he and his fiancee will move back. He still has to repair the inside of the home and is struggling - like so many people here - to get insurance money.

But one day, he knows, he will climb nine feet up to his front door, look around him and see other raised houses.

He will be able to gaze out the back of his renovated home and see below him the thick green lawn, the gray-blue water and the long, wind-weathered dock.

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