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A community ripped apart

HOOPERSVILLE - Tropical Storm Isabel swallowed a chunk of the causeway here, effectively cutting off from the rest of civilization this narrow, remote island that sticks out like a pinky into the Chesapeake Bay.

Residents trying to dry out their homes must hurry to get here before the damaged bridge is shut down for repairs for seven hours each day - and be sure they don't need anything at the hardware store that might as well be hundreds of miles away.

It has now been more than two weeks since the wind, rain and surging tides invaded this rural swath of the Eastern Shore. Some homes are condemned; others await a ruling. The water and muck no longer slosh along the old oak floors, but many of those floors have buckled and may be beyond repair.

Rippons Brothers Seafood, one of the island's crab houses, reopened Wednesday - finally giving its workers a chance to start earning money again and giving watermen a place to sell their catches.

But the people of tiny Hoopersville are realizing that normal may be an impossible place for them to return to.

"I've never seen anything like this. Daddy hasn't either. He remembers [Tropical Storm] Hazel," said Janet R. Ruark, who manages the Rippons' crab house and is one of four generations of her family who live here. "The people on the island are devastated."

Many of the old-timers say this one was even worse than the storm of 1933, which left the bottom third of Hoopers Island uninhabitable. Hoopers Island is actually a chain of three islands, Fishing Creek to the north, Hoopersville in the center and Applegarth to the south.

The story of Hoopersville is being repeated all over low-lying southern Dorchester County, one of the state's poorest, with 30,000 residents spread over a giant landmass.

Many people on the island didn't have flood insurance. And those who did are finding it doesn't cover the contents of their homes. Many are elderly, living on fixed incomes, without a clue what they will do.

Officials estimate the damage could reach $40 million. The county will probably spend $500,000 for overtime, for hauling debris and more. That's money it doesn't have, said Thomas A. Flowers, a county councilman.

"It's endless," Flowers said. "The minute you say, 'I think I've got a handle on it,' you don't have a handle on it."

The people of Hoopersville go back many generations. Almost everyone is related to everyone else in some way. And almost everyone makes their living off the water. That's why there has been so much suffering - at the end of an already difficult crab season, they have lost nearly a month of work, time spent taking the boats and crab pots out of the water as Isabel approached and time spent putting everything back.

Even as they returned to the water - and better crabbing than usual, thanks to the storm - they had trouble finding a market for their catch. The crab houses have only been open sporadically and, with the road closed, they couldn't easily take what they had further inland.

The power is back on in Hoopersville, but many people lost their washers and dryers, their refrigerators and their furnaces to the water. Many of the 67 homes are without stoves, which is why the American Red Cross spent two weeks serving two hot meals a day on Hoopers Island.

"Some of them have no gas for their stoves still," said the Rev. Joseph Kelly, pastor of the Hosier Memorial Church in Fishing Creek and Hoopers Memorial Church in Hoopersville. "Some of them have no appliances and have no money for appliances."

The church bought 20 heaters for people, which were snapped up quickly when overnight temperatures started dipping into the unseasonable 30s. They could probably use more, Kelly said.

Kelly is new to the ministry. The two churches are his first assignment. He arrived July 1. One of his two churches is now condemned, after water poured through the Hoopersville building, damaging the foundation and pulling the pews out of the floor. But not one of the brightly colored stained glass windows was broken.

Here, perhaps more than anywhere, the church is what brings people together. More than 90 percent of the island's residents are congregants.

"The morning after the storm, everyone didn't say, 'What about my house?'" Kelly recalled. "They said, 'What about the church?'"

"It's the only thing we've got left of the community," Ruark said. "My daughter asked me, 'Where are we going to have Sunday school?' She's 9."

The church, which dates back 150 years, will cost an estimated $60,000 to $70,000 to fix. It is unclear whether the members will be able to rebuild. A fellowship hall down the road has served as temporary quarters for services, but it's not the same.

To visit his church and his parishioners last week, Kelly had to travel by boat. Twelve people rode the storm out on the island, Kelly said. "Out of those 12, all 12 said they'd leave next time," he said.

As he made his way down Hoopersville's main street late last week, Kelly couldn't stop telling the story of each home. "That house is off its foundation - there are people still living in it because they have nowhere to go," he said. Moving on, he said, "The floors are gone in that house."

Officials with the Maryland Emergency Management Agency said the area is eligible for disaster aid and Kelly has had two federal emergency officials staying at his parsonage. But their impact has yet to be felt.

"Look at all this," said 80-year-old Rosa Lewis, a Hoopersville resident since 1948. "It's a mess."

She has spent nearly every day since the storm hit trying to clean up. The mud is gone - it was about a foot deep inside - and the pile of ruined furniture is growing in the front yard. She hasn't decided whether the couch can stay. When she first saw what Isabel had done to her home, she cried.

"I'm still crying," Lewis said.

Louella Ruark, a distant relative of Janet, has lived for 50 years in the house her husband built. She rode out the storm in Cambridge, about 20 miles away. Her children wouldn't let her onto the island until more than a week after the storm. She has been recovering from ovarian cancer, and they wanted to postpone the heartbreak they knew she would suffer.

Not only is her house in disarray, the once-flat floors rolling like waves, but most of what she owns is gone. She said the hardest thing for her to take was watching heavy machinery swallow up what were once her treasured belongings, which are now little more than garbage.

She is waiting to find out if the house will be the final casualty.

"They haven't let me know if it can be fixed up or what can be done," said Ruark, 69. "They seem to think it slid off the foundation."

She has no flood insurance and nothing to cover her belongings.

Can she rebuild?

"It's the money matter. Not without help, I can't. I'm living off my old-age pension," she said.

She stayed for Hazel. She was eight months pregnant. The water came into the house and swept right back out - not even leaving water marks inside. This time, it's different.

"I'm too old to start over," she said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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