After the flood, cleanup begins

Residents mop up and officials in northeastern Maryland call for federal assistance in the wake of Monday's freakish storm.

July 14, 2004|By Ariel Sabar and Gus G. Sentementes | Ariel Sabar and Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

NORTH EAST -- Even without the four young children vying for her attention, Michelle Fisher had her hands full yesterday.

Monday's angry floodwaters had come and gone from her small duplex here, but the cleanup was just beginning.

With yellow rubber gloves, Fisher, 21, scrubbed the mud off her kitchen floor and mopped water that turned her living room into a shallow pond. Her losses were painful to tally: a computer, a television, a car seat, a couch, a stroller.

Fisher, a Missouri native, was ready to move back. "I never want to go through this experience again," she said.

It was a sentiment heard across northeastern Maryland, drenched Monday afternoon by a freak storm that unloaded 5 to 10 inches of pounding rain in three hours.

Yesterday, townspeople in the hardest-hit spots of Cecil and Harford counties pumped out basements and stuffed garbage pails with ruined belongings. Storekeepers tore up soggy carpets, calculated their losses and pondered the long days of cleanup required to reopen.

Many said they had no flood insurance. Even Hurricane Floyd and Tropical Storm Isabel, they said, had been kinder to their homes and businesses.

Officials said yesterday that it was too early to estimate the damage. But they said several bridges and roads and dozens of homes and businesses were damaged, with the cost likely to reach well into the millions of dollars.

Top officials from the Maryland Emergency Management Agency toured the area yesterday in hopes of making a case for federal disaster aid. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. will decide in the next couple of days whether to apply for federal assistance, said his spokeswoman, Shareese N. DeLeaver.

Local officials made clear that they would press hard for outside help. "It's almost imperative that we have federal assistance," said North East Mayor Robert F. McKnight. "People just can't recover by themselves."

By yesterday evening, power had been restored to all but a few of the roughly 10,200 homes and businesses in Cecil and Harford counties that went dark during the storm.

Meteorologists said yesterday that northeastern Maryland could see severe thunderstorms and hail today, and scattered showers tomorrow, but not enough to produce flooding.

Monday's storm, lasting from about 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., was produced by a trifecta of atmospheric conditions: high humidity, stagnant air and low pressure that swelled clouds into virtual water balloons.

One North East woman described rain falling with such force that the water bounced off the pavement.

The small towns at the head of the Chesapeake Bay have lived through other watery disasters. But this was different, residents said. The winds of Floyd and Isabel drove water into town in a rolling tidal surge. But Monday's water came from the sky, not the bay, and it transformed the area's trickling creeks into white-water rapids that leapt their banks and roared over roadways.

The American Red Cross put up 35 people on cots in the North East Fire Station. But by last night, all had found lodgings with friends or family, a spokeswoman said.

In Havre de Grace, officials measured 10.25 inches of rain between 7 a.m. and midnight -- a 100-year storm event.

When Patricia Brooks, 40, arrived at her Havre de Grace hair salon yesterday morning, she found a coating of mud, water-logged hairstyle books, ruined dye, soppy hair extensions and marks that suggested the floodwaters had covered the seats of her dryer chairs.

In Port Deposit, where about 20 homes were flooded, one couple played a game of Dude, where's my house?

"Hey, this is part of our deck," said Judith Fisher as she pointed to two boards that had come to rest against a bridge over Rock Run.

"There's more down there," said Michael Fisher as he spied some lumber downstream.

In North East, the storm struck during the busiest season, when boaters head to marinas and tourists to Elk Neck State Park and the row of quaint shops on Main Street.

Terry Dunn cast an eye around the dream antique store she had opened a few months before. Ceiling tiles had tumbled down, mud streaked an Oriental rug, and, to judge by the smell, mildew was afoot.

"I'm worried about the damage you can't see," said Dunn, 50, who just last year had to abandon her house on North East harbor because of flooding from Isabel. "What are we going to deal with inside the walls, inside the ceiling?"

The few people with any hope of a profit were a three-man sales force from an out-of-town company. Fred Weidner wore a green shirt emblazoned "Sunbelt Rentals" and handed out glossy brochures.

"If you see anyone looking for dehumidifiers, carpet fans, water extraction units, wet-dry vacs -- you name it, we've got it," he said.

A red "condemned" sign hung on the doorpost at 511 Main St., where water swept away part of the foundation and turned the driveway into a jumbled jigsaw puzzle. Robin Kaznaier, 36, a single mother of three who lived there, spent yesterday salvaging belongings, the floor creaking beneath her feet.

If people found any consolation, it was that that the flood had not killed or seriously injured anyone.

Pat Moore of Havre De Grace spent Monday night in a hotel after a swollen creek washed away her front lawn, tipped over a basement wall and swept across her first floor.

"When I first saw the house I was like, `Oh, my God,'" she said, in front of the muddy remains of her lawn. "But we are all healthy, no one was hurt and a building is replaceable."

In North East, Carol England had worried that her cat, Moocher, would fail to find high ground as floodwaters rose ankle deep in her nautical-themed gift shop. But Moocher was fine. England followed muddy paw prints to the main display window, where Moocher had found shelter beneath a model of the Chesapeake Light, which marks the mouth of the bay.

Sun staff writers Lynn Anderson, Andrew A. Green, Jennifer McMenamin, Scott Waldman, Joe Nawrozki, Seth Rosen and Ted Shelsby contributed to this article.

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