Isabel: One Year Later

As some victims celebrate, others still wait to recover

Impact: Life has returned to normal for many along the bay, but Maryland's worst disaster has left lingering wounds.

September 18, 2004|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Bea Magsamen will keep the pork roasts and pit beef warm. Marlys Hettinger and Debbie Brill will brew coffee and tea. Helen Yozsa will be on sink patrol. Pam Keller will bring her famous cheesecake.

A year after they whipped up a large portion of comfort food for a Baltimore County community battered by the worst weather in memory, the ladies at St. Matthew Lutheran Church are cooking again. A potluck dinner is on the schedule at the church fellowship hall in Bowleys Quarters tonight -- the anniversary of Tropical Storm Isabel's unwelcome arrival in Maryland.

"We wanted to get everyone together again for a victory dinner," said organizer Dottie Coppell, who was also among the church members who made sure that families and work crews didn't go hungry in the weeks after the storm. "We have a lot of people still struggling. But we do feel victorious. We survived."

Even as hurricane after hurricane strikes the Caribbean and the southeastern United States -- each one generating, Coppell said, more than a little unease in her waterfront community -- Isabel victims and government officials are taking stock of last year's storm and its lingering impact.

More than 160 families in Maryland are living in government-owned trailers, state officials say. Although some homeowners have rebuilt, many others are fighting over insurance claims or are trying to finance repairs themselves. Construction work is in various stages throughout eastern Baltimore County and Anne Arundel and Dorchester counties, the areas hardest hit by the floods that accompanied Isabel.

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. and Anne Arundel Executive Janet S. Owens saluted residents this week for their resilience, and Smith called for the state to increase funding in a program that provides financial assistance to homeowners affected by Isabel. Three days later, Maryland's U.S. senators pressed the federal flood insurance program to settle long-disputed claims from Isabel victims.

Lessons learned

And the state this week released a report, "Lessons Learned from Tropical Storm Isabel," that called for agencies to update their disaster response procedures. Among the study's recommendations, it said that steps should be taken to better protect shorelines from erosion and to be sure Isabel victims are aware of available housing assistance.

"What people need to realize is that this was the worst disaster to hit Maryland ever," said Audrey E. Scott, secretary of the state Department of Planning, which issued the report.

"We've made a lot of progress," Scott said. "But we're not done until everyone is back in their homes. It could be another year or so."

Isabel started as a Category 5 hurricane with winds exceeding 155 mph and hit the Outer Banks in North Carolina as it weakened to a tropical storm. The storm made landfall in Maryland around dinnertime last Sept. 18, causing tidal surges of as much as 8 feet in the Chesapeake Bay.

More than 2,000 people were evacuated from their homes in the state. By the time the water had finished rising the next morning, entire communities were flooded.

Businesses in Fells Point and Annapolis were thigh-high in water. In Millers Island, a low-lying peninsula in eastern Baltimore County, some residents had to be rescued by boat from the second stories of their homes.

Hundreds of thousands were without power. About 18,000 Maryland residents registered for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In Cedarhurst on the bay, an enclave of about 400 houses in southern Anne Arundel County, the community pier now looks like a pier again instead of a jumble of splintered boards sticking out of the water at all angles. Only a handful of houses are covered in plywood and surrounded by construction ladders. And, for the past year, the Chesapeake has stayed safely on the other side of a rocky barrier.

`Like camping'

But if residents want a reminder of how Tropical Storm Isabel ravaged their streets with water and wind, they need only stop by Eileen Thaden's place.

Thaden, her husband Jim and their two teenage daughters are one of the 30 Anne Arundel families still living in trailers supplied by FEMA.

"It looks like a time warp around here," Thaden said Thursday. "You see it and you probably think, `Why don't these people do something?' Well, we can't."

Like many families waiting to get back in their homes, the Thadens are struggling with their insurance claim. Eileen Thaden said the best offer they have received is more than $100,000 short of what the family needs to rebuild its home, which is unlivable because of a cracked foundation and widespread interior damage from flooding.

The Thadens don't have the money to get the work started while they wait for a final settlement. So Eileen Thaden said she is resigned to spending a second winter in a 30-foot trailer with insufficient heat and pipes prone to freezing.

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