Two years after escaping her flooded Baltimore County neighborhood in a rowboat, Debra Simon watched her television in horror the past several days, reliving the nightmare of losing her home to a wall of water.
She has watched Hurricane Katrina coverage from inside the cramped, government-issued trailer in Edgemere that she and her husband have called home for the past 20 months. Their natural disaster was Tropical Storm Isabel, much weaker than Katrina but powerful enough to change lives.
As Katrina victims face the task of putting their lives back together, many Maryland families can attest to the challenges ahead.
Two years after Isabel, more than 50 Maryland families still live in trailers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said yesterday.
The state asked FEMA this week to extend the length of time Maryland families can stay in the trailers past September, FEMA spokeswoman Niki Edwards said, adding that the request is being reviewed. And bitter complaints about the federal flood insurance program have made it to federal court and Congress, with families alleging they were shortchanged.
Steve Kanstoroom, whose Talbot County home was damaged during Isabel, has spent nearly two years advocating on behalf of Isabel victims.
He described a "nightmarish" scenario of cramped FEMA trailers, low-balled insurance reimbursement and uncertain futures.
"It's absolutely hellish," he said. "The common theme is bankruptcy, divorce, antidepressants, school failures, children forced to endure cruel words as far as being called trailer trash, helplessness and despair. That's common."
Charlene Kotrla, who spent $100,000 in retirement money to rebuild her Baltimore County home, cringed at the images of crumpled homes in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
"It just tears me up," said Kotrla, 57. "It's like you're helpless. You want to help them."
She and her husband moved back into their Millers Island home in February, after spending more than a year in a FEMA trailer.
The couple have joined a class action lawsuit against seven insurance companies. The Kotrlas allege their insurance only covered $120,000 in damage - less than half of their $300,000 insurance coverage.
They said they needed the entire amount to repair their home.
"We'll never be the people we were before," said Kotrla, who owns a house-cleaning business. "We're very skeptical people now."
In Simon's Edgemere neighborhood, where modest two-story homes are built close together on the water, more than a dozen of her neighbors have elevated their houses since Isabel. Simon is still in a trailer, which sits parked in front of the three-story home she and her husband are rebuilding on the shore of Greenhill Cove.
The trailer is barely big enough to house her, her husband and Winnie, their sheltie.
"It's like camping, except not just for the weekend," she said as she stood by her kitchen table, where she had laid out a scrapbook containing pictures of her old house submerged in 5 feet of water.
Simon hopes to have her home rebuilt by December. She and her husband are among 51 Maryland families still living in trailers, according to FEMA, including 20 in Baltimore County and 12 in Anne Arundel County.
As Hurricane Katrina bore down on the Gulf Coast this week, Simon, a manager with the state Department of Health & Mental Hygiene, comforted a colleague whose relatives fled their New Orleans home for Texas.
Simon shared her own plight.
"I had over $120,000 worth of damage, and I got $70,000 from the flood insurance program," Simon said.
"It left me paralyzed in a way. ... It wasn't enough to rebuild."
She took out loans to rebuild her home.
Recovering from a big storm affects your outlook and can strain personal relationships, she said.
"You tend to fight a lot more. You lose your temper a little bit quicker. You cry a little easier and you don't laugh as much, though you try."
Sun staff writer Lisa Goldberg contributed to this report.