Isabel's blow lingers for `forgotten' victims

September 24, 2006|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,sun reporter

Sharon Godlewski was cramped in a garage, unsure of when her family's Millers Island home will be rebuilt.

Mike Poleski tracked a storm brewing off the coast of Bermuda, worried about what hurricane might be the next to hit his Baltimore County marina.

Beverly Motta wrote to the governor urging flood insurance reform.

Three years after Tropical Storm Isabel, most of the hundreds of families displaced by the storm in eastern Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County are settled into rebuilt or remodeled homes. But dozens of Isabel victims remain in trailers or other temporary housing, while many more continue to fight insurance companies and struggle financially with the costs of loans and second mortgages.

"We do kind of feel like we've been forgotten," said Godlewski, a 50-year-old mortgage processor who lives with her husband and three children in a cinder-block garage next to where their home was destroyed in 2003.

The storm surge that Isabel generated filled homes in communities such as Bowleys Quarters and Millers Island with several feet of water. Some families were rescued by boat from the second floors of their homes. The water destroyed dozens more homes in Anne Arundel County and parts of the Eastern Shore. And by morning, water was several feet deep across Pratt and Light streets in downtown Baltimore.

In the aftermath, more than 200 families were forced to live in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And property damage across Maryland was estimated at $410 million.

Even those who have finished rebuilding say Isabel still haunts them.

"You're always worried," said Poleski, who, with his brother, Rob, owns a Millers Island marina that suffered nearly $1 million in damage. "You know it could happen. You just don't know when."

Poleski spent the Isabel anniversary keeping tabs on Hurricane Helena as it churned in the Atlantic Ocean before weakening in the Bahamas. He said he watches his computerized weather monitoring system "morning, noon and night."

"You have this sick feeling in your gut," said Motta, describing what it's like to read about victims of Hurricane Katrina and other disasters. "Have I recovered? It's unhealthy not to. You've got to get on the other side, at some point, and stop being a victim."

But the 51-year-old woman said she is still waiting for $30,000 in insurance money to cover $200,000 worth of repairs made to her Millers Island home. Motta, who lives with her 9-year-old son and relatives in Dundalk, and several other advocates for Isabel victims also continue to push for reforms to the National Flood Insurance Program.

Insurance companies, "their contractors and FEMA's contractors do or say whatever suits their interest while being subject to virtually no penalties or oversight," Motta and four other Isabel victims wrote in a Sept. 19 letter to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., asking that he help with their lobbying efforts.

Maryland Planning Secretary Audrey E. Scott, the governor's point person on Isabel, said she hoped to meet with the victims who wrote the letter in the next few weeks.

"We continue to pursue efforts at the federal level to correct the gaps identified during Isabel and confirmed by Katrina," Scott said.

The insurance complaints are the subject of a lawsuit pending in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, filed against FEMA and dozens of insurance companies and adjusters by more than 100 Isabel victims.

The suit claims widespread abuses in the National Flood Insurance Program, alleging, for example, that adjusters were trained "to lowball" the claimants.

That suit and a separate class action lawsuit against insurance companies are in the preliminary phases of litigation.

Maryland's Emergency Management Agency took over the ownership of 11 FEMA trailers and one mobile home in May when the federal agency ended its housing assistance program for Maryland's Isabel victims, according to officials with both agencies.

"We did not want people, for reasons beyond their control, to find themselves homeless again," said Jeff Welsh, a spokesman for MEMA. "Our intention is to allow them to live in the homes until they have permanent housing."

Two families have vacated the trailers in Baltimore County since May, Welsh said.

But Jennifer Dieux is still living in a FEMA trailer in Anne Arundel County with her husband and three sons.

She has filed a suit against the agency to stay in the trailers until their houses are rebuilt. She says she's hopeful that her family won't mark another Isabel anniversary in the cramped quarters. But they've been rebuilding their home in Shady Side with personal loans because Dieux said their $60,000 insurance settlement didn't begin to cover the loss of their three-bedroom cabin.

"It's been so long," said Dieux, a 32-year-old events coordinator at an Annapolis school. "We feel like we've been abandoned."

Other families, like Godlewski's, are waiting for homes to be rebuilt while they sleep in campers, garages or stay with relatives and friends.

Godlewski and her husband, Allan, had seven years of mortgage payments left on their three-bedroom waterfront home when Isabel hit. Although they were covered by the National Flood Insurance Program, she says she hasn't received a payment from her insurance company, whose $60,000 settlement offer wasn't enough to rebuild. Instead, the Godlewskis have taken out a 30-year construction loan to pay off the mortgage on their demolished house and buy a two-story modular home they hope will be built by Christmas.

"It's still hard after three years," Sharon Godlewski said. "It changes your life in a lot of ways, family-wise. The kids ask, `When are we going to have a real Christmas?'

"All you're left with is the memories," she said. "You tell yourself, `Thank God we have our family.' If you keep dwelling on your loss, you'll never get over it."

laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com

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