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Crisfield rallies for community Thanksgiving dinner

Superstorm Sandy has left the small town of Crisfield reeling from floods that destroyed homes and power outages that persist three weeks after the deluge. But the storm hasn't dampened the community spirit in this Eastern Shore enclave.

Scores of residents expect to come together on Thanksgiving for a community dinner at the Elks Lodge, which is serving turkey and all the traditional side dishes — the majority of the meal donated. In preparation, a sign on Highway 413 reads: "Come one, come all. Dinner at 3 p.m."

"We are opening the doors to everybody and will do the best we can to serve them," said John Mackenzie, who calls himself the lodge's "official poobah." "We are reaching out as best we can and giving all we have available. A lot of people here are still feeling hardship from the storm.

"This town deserves a chance to join together in peace, harmony and community."

Three weeks after the storm made the "Crab Capital of the World" the hardest-hit location in Maryland, power remains sporadic in some neighborhoods and mold is creeping into homes that were flooded. Some families have lost everything and remain in need of the simplest necessities.

Mackenzie is expecting about 250 diners to come through the lodge's buffet line. Many could not salvage their kitchen appliances. Others have had no time to shop or cook after spending the last three weeks volunteering to help neighbors repair homes and businesses, he said.

Paula Bisset, the lodge's bartender, is bringing her children. "This dinner is a good thing to be part of and the kids should see that," she said.

Bisset added scalloped apples to the menu on Wednesday after she found 24 pounds of Granny Smiths already chopped at the local grocery store. Her 16-year-old son Jonathan spent Wednesday helping with the prep, and also baked several cakes and batches of brownies.

As Mackenzie was getting organized Wednesday morning, he realized he might have a gravy emergency. "I have stock simmering, but I don't have a recipe," he said. Bisset answered, "I'll handle it. You know I can cook."

On Oct. 29, the storm barreled into the Somerset County town, and the nearly 3,000 residents, many of whom earn their livelihood from the Chesapeake Bay, saw homes and businesses destroyed. Longtimers in this town on Tangier Sound said they could not recall such widespread storm damage in their lifetimes.

Sandy's impact in Maryland was not limited to Crisfield — the storm caused flooding in the Baltimore area and turned into snow in the state's westernmost region. Garrett County dealt with as much as 30 inches of heavy, wet snow that closed nearly all its roads and left 85 percent of its homes without power.

"We have recovered nicely in a relatively short time," said Jim Raley, chairman of the Garrett County board of commissioners. "I haven't had to talk to the power company in more than a week now, after talking to them every hour. I feel badly for Crisfield. It's a great little town that took a direct hit just like us."

The snow has all but melted in Garrett County and most families will pursue their typical Thanksgiving gatherings in their own fully-powered homes, he said. But flood damage lingers in Crisfield and many lack the wherewithal to put together even the simplest meal.

"People here are pretty resilient but they have been hurt bad," said Crisfield Mayor P.J. Purnell. "When you ride through town, you think it's starting to look normal. Then, you see a family hauling away piles of ruined furniture and appliances."

Instead of waiting for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster designation — which came Wednesday along with a promise of federal aid — the town's residents busily delivered relief to one another. Purnell said every day he sees the outpouring of help from neighbors, churches and even out-of towners.

"Everyone has really stepped up," he said.

John Phoebus, an attorney who has taken on the role of volunteer coordinator, enlisted about 150 residents within days of the storm. They divided the affected area into quadrants and are tackling the pressing problems in order of priority.

"It's case management, trying to connect with everyone who needs help," Phoebus said. "We have built teams and people are volunteering six days a week. We are finding temporary housing, food, furniture and clothing for hundreds of people who aren't or shouldn't be in their homes."

Churches have rotated the serving of daily hot meals and are delivering dinners to the homebound. They are also distributing clothing and groceries. Immanuel United Methodist has served dinner every day since the storm and averages about 125 guests daily, but has served as many as 300. Its members gave out prepackaged frozen turkey dinners Sunday and served a turkey dinner Wednesday.

"The devastation has been phenomenal and overwhelming," said the Rev. Kim Gilson, who has been tracking volunteer hours well into the thousands for FEMA. "But the human spirit is strong here and there is an amazing spirit of togetherness."

The parish will take a break Thursday and let the Elks Lodge handle dinner. But members will be right back in the church kitchen Friday, Gilson said. Mackenzie has promised any leftovers.

Volunteers are certain that the resiliency will continue. The Christmas lights have already been hung on lampposts on Crisfield's main street.

"We have to dry out for a few months, but we will be back to normal before the crabbing season starts," said Billie Jo Chandler, a caterer, restaurant owner and volunteer in the clean-up. "Volunteers are giving this town a sense of self-pride. We are not sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves and waiting for the government to help."

Phoebus said, "I would like to hand this clean-up off to FEMA, but if not, we will continue, even if it takes us years. The hurricane taught us how we are all connected and that the well-being of our neighbor is as important as our own. If the tide had gone in a different direction this time, I would have been one of those asking for help and I know I would get it."

He plans to stop in at the Elks' dinner, not so much to share the food as to share in the fellowship. "We are all going to come together as one big family," Phoebus said.


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