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Still recovering from Sandy, Crisfield braces for next storm

Officials hope to bolster barrier islands and berms and raise homes

January 13, 2013|By John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun

It will also take money. A similar effort on Assateague Island cost millions. But both Republican Rep. Andy Harris, who represents the Eastern Shore, and Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin, say the restoration effort probably spared Ocean City from additional damage during Sandy.

"Clearly, one could make the argument that some mitigation projects are financially beneficial to the taxpayer," said Harris, who is withholding judgment on the broader disaster bill until he sees how much of it will be paid for.

Democrats have supported the disaster funding. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who as the recently appointed chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee helped shape the legislation, will tour Crisfield Wednesday. Cardin visited on Thursday.

"This bill should have passed before now. Uncertainty causes so much anxiety," Cardin told city officials. "We've got to let people know, including the mayor, what the rules are."

The federal government initially denied aid for Marylanders affected by the storm, but then, in a rare move, reversed that decision for Somerset County.

Separately, Congress is working on a broad aid package. Lawmakers approved a pared down bill to fund the National Flood Insurance Program and agreed to consider the rest of the spending when lawmakers return to Washington this week.

Edward A. Thomas, president of the Natural Hazard Mitigation Association, noted that it is usually easier to prepare for the next storm while rebuilding from the last one. But Thomas acknowledged there is a steep learning curve to navigating the bureaucracy of federal and state disaster relief programs.

"Following a disaster, people have to rebuild differently," he said, "but for homeowners who have just gone through the worst event of their lives, we are not making it easier for them."

For now, Crisfield remains focused on the present. As many as 50 residents are streaming into the city's disaster recovery center every day. The watermen who were once central to the city's economy are scrambling to replace their pots and shanties — most of which was uninsurable.

"We still have houses that are just saturated, with people living in them," said Billie Jo Chandler, who owns a pizzeria on Richardson Avenue and who, along with attorney John Phoebus, has coordinated the volunteer response effort for months.

FEMA reports there have been 800 flood insurance claims from Maryland, but many homeowners here do not carry insurance. Houses have been passed down through generations, mortgages are paid off and the premiums are simply too high for some families. Homeowners who receive FEMA aid are required to carry flood insurance or risk forgoing federal help in the next storm.

Cropper, for instance, has received no federal aid after this storm because she dropped a flood insurance policy after receiving disaster aid decades ago. Her home has flooded three times since she and her husband bought it in 1974, but she said it has never been this bad.

For those who have it, insurance hasn't necessarily been a panacea. In a city of old homes, including many that were in disrepair before the storm, insurance adjusters have struggled to determine which claims are legitimate. The Maryland Insurance Administration reports that 92 Somerset County families have asked the agency to look into claim disputes.

Jenna Howard owns a large, two-story home in Crisfield and carries both homeowners and flood insurance policies. Neither has paid out yet. Until they do, or formally deny her, she is ineligible for FEMA aid, which pays for costs not covered by flood insurance.

So for the past two months, Howard and her three boys — ages 7, 6 and 3 — have camped out in the one room of their home that was not severely damaged, making do with a single electrical outlet and no hot water. Howard, 26, said she's hesitant to make repairs on the home for fear it will lessen her chances for receiving insurance money or aid.

"I'm still waiting for the flood insurance to actually say if they're going to pay anything," Howard said. "We're all getting a little anxious."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

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