By Scott Dance, The Baltimore Sun
9:52 PM EDT, October 28, 2013
Hurricane Sandy blew the waters of the Little Annemessex River into living rooms across the Somerset County town of Crisfield one year ago, displacing hundreds of families, some still homeless a year later.
Their numbers began to shrink Monday when charity workers dedicated the first two houses to be rebuilt since the storm. Many others have been repaired.
Across the state, thousands in Garrett County endured days without electricity after Sandy dumped more than two feet of unusually wet, heavy snow, and emergency officials managed rescue efforts from a courthouse basement with a slow Internet connection. A year later, officials are putting finishing touches on a high-tech center capable of coordinating rescues via satellite technology and maps of vulnerable residents.
Lessons from the historic storm still are being implemented, but officials in Crisfield and Garrett County, the state's hardest-hit areas, say they are better prepared for future disasters. And preparation is continuing for future storms scientists say could multiply and intensify because of global climate change.
That includes broader efforts to improve storm cleanup and recovery, prevent power outages, and adjust to the likelihood of more frequent and severe flooding.
"We know weather vulnerabilities are going to continue to grow, so we have to be adaptable," said Patricia Hoffman, U.S. Department of Energy assistant secretary for electricity delivery and energy reliability.
Sandy struck the mid-Atlantic coast a year ago Tuesday, packing hurricane-force winds though it no longer behaved as a tropical cyclone. Ocean City and Assateague Island braced for the worst, but Maryland was spared the devastation that struck New Jersey and New York. Yet Sandy's storm surge and winds inundated Crisfield on the Chesapeake Bay, and its inland snows buried Western Maryland and West Virginia.
In Crisfield, 70 or so families remain on a list waiting for their homes to be rebuilt by an organization of several faith-based relief groups, said Pastor Phillip Huber, a Washington, D.C., minister helping to coordinate the effort.
Relief workers have helped dozens of other families get the assistance they need, from psychological and emotional support to clearing out waterlogged first floors and replacing drywall and flooring, Huber said.
The home rebuilding effort is expected to take until this time next year at least, but Huber said the organization, which includes Mennonite and Lutheran groups as well as the Red Cross, will stay in town as long as they are needed.
"We're putting the city back together," said Noah Bradshaw, Crisfield's town inspector. "It's going to go on for a couple years.
Crisfield residents and business owners initially were denied financial assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but after an appeal, FEMA reversed the decision. Still, the awards provided by FEMA's individual assistance program were relatively small at about $3,000 apiece relative to the damage people sustained, because the program is not meant to replace insurance coverage, according to the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.
Insurance companies paid more than $222 million on nearly 53,000 claims filed for damage attributed to Sandy in Maryland, according to the Maryland Insurance Administration. Sandy is estimated to have caused $77 billion in insured losses in all, according to reinsurance company Swiss Re.
Also Monday, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released $19 million more for Community Development Block Grants for Maryland communities hardest hit by Sandy, announced Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Sen. Ben Cardin. The funds can be used to address damaged housing and infrastructure, and economic development. Maryland communities have received more than $73.5 million in Sandy-related federal funds.
In Garrett County, power outages caused the biggest problems, with as many as 80 percent of county residents without electricity during the storm. The heavy snow brought down trees that pulled power lines with them or blocked roads, preventing repairs. Without mapping technology or comprehensive lists of elderly or disabled residents, the recovery effort was difficult, officials said, though there were no deaths or major injuries.
Soon after the storm, officials began pursuing plans for an emergency operations center. The new facility has been installed in an unused conference room at the Garrett County Airport near Oakland. And a full-time emergency management director also has been appointed, after the county previously made the job part-time.
The new center includes large video screens, a "Smart Board," and phone lines and broadband Internet coverage. Still in the works is a generator for the facility and more training for the 40 county, state and federal employees who will be on call to man it.
"We are leaps and bounds ahead; we've got some work to do yet but we're really getting there," said John Frank, the county's new emergency manager.
Near Baltimore, the focus is on preventing flooding and power outages.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials said this month they plan to spend $1.2 million to remove the Bloede Dam on the Patapsco River in Catonsville, as well as another dam in Centreville on the Eastern Shore, to prevent risks from dam failure.
In Howard County, officials broke ground Monday on an $8.1 million electrical protection system that will help prevent power-outage-related overflows at the Little Patuxent wastewater treatment plant in Savage. A power outage at the plant during Sandy was responsible for releasing 19.5 million gallons of untreated effluent into the Little Patuxent River.
Efforts also are being made to help utility crews move about more easily before and after storms hit. Maryland emergency management and transportation officials worked together to allow for crews to move quickly through toll plazas even if they aren't equipped with EZ Pass transponders, and federal energy officials have worked to provide crews with waivers on highway weight limits for the crews.
Recovery also continues in hard-hit New Jersey and New York. Ellis Island reopened to the public Monday, a year after Sandy destroyed the electrical, communication, water and sewage systems on the island that welcomed immigrants to the country. Many businesses in those states are still waiting for disaster-relief grants or insurance payouts.
After Sandy, 2013 has been relatively calm weather-wise despite warnings from scientists that the region should expect more storm-related outages and damage in the future as the sea-level continues to rise. Even though another active hurricane season was predicted, the tropics spawned few storms, and the coolest summer since 2009 contributed to a drop in severe weather.
In places like Crisfield, though, the signs of the importance of preparation remain visible. The homes being rebuilt are being constructed with their main floors six feet higher than before, in line with flood plain guidelines that weren't in place when the town was first built.
"The outside of the city looks pretty good when you walk around. When you get inside homes, that's where the pain is," Bradshaw said.
Reuters contributed to this article.
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