Among wreckage, families find reason to be thankful

ON BAY DRIVE in Bowleys Quarters, everybody's worldly possessions are now scattered around everybody else's yards: furniture and toys and front porches, and the sides of houses that were ripped away last week as whitecaps bullied their way onto land and rushed between homes.

"See that white deck over there?" Kathleen Bell said yesterday, as she slogged through the remains of her front yard. Behind her, the gray confluent waters of the Chesapeake Bay and Middle River slapped hard against a stone abutment. Big chunks of sidewalk were torn up, remnants of Tropical Storm Isabel.

The big white deck, she said, came from three houses down. A lot of it was splinters now. Nearby were two huge trees, completely uprooted and lying on their sides. A spiral staircase next door to Bell's home, leading to a second-floor porch, was ripped out of its metal hinges and hung next to a huge hole that used to be a picture window. Two doors away from her house, Bell pointed to a back yard.

"Oh, look," she said, "my heron." It was a statue of the elegant bird, standing straight up in the yard. But last week it stood in Bell's living room, when she still had a living room and a home around it, before Isabel and the awful winds and the water that kept on rushing across this waterfront section of eastern Baltimore County.

"I'm lucky," she insisted. "Nobody got killed. All we lost is stuff."

The "stuff" includes the home she and her husband, George, have owned for the past 17 years. It was the soft spot at the end of their rainbow. Married for 39 years, George Bell started out selling office supplies from the trunk of his car, built it into a little business where his wife also worked, and eventually they made enough money to purchase this waterfront home.

The house was condemned the day after Isabel did her worst. As the storm began to huff and puff last week, Kathleen Bell, 59, told her husband, George, 60, "We've gotta get out of here."

"Oh, you women, you worry about everything," George replied. "This house has stood a long time" -- since 1924 -- "and it'll be fine."

"I feel like somebody's talking to me from heaven," Kathleen said. "We've gotta go."

They vacated overnight. The next morning, from a boat about 200 yards offshore, they could see that the back doors had been blown in. But, from a distance, it was tough to see any further damage -- until they drove up, later in the day.

The decks in front were now in the back yard. Debris was everywhere. Oil tanks were floating nearby, and an air conditioner was lying in a nearby road. The smell of oil filled the air. Cars floated by, or lay in ditches. When Kathleen opened her back door, rockfish floated out. There were watermarks 2 feet high inside the house, and seaweed collected in the kitchen. Buried in the seaweed, they found George's wedding ring, which he had laid aside before they fled.

"My heart sank," Kathleen said yesterday. She ran a hand through graying hair and looked into the remains of her home from the front yard. Much of her old furniture had simply been thrown to the back of the first floor by onrushing water. Some of it had been hauled to a nearby Dumpster.

Parts of the area were still flooded when the Bells arrived Friday. Behind Bay Drive was a field, several hundred yards long, but it was covered by several feet of water. At the far end of the field was an old shingled house. In the house were 92-year-old Nancy Mack and her ailing son. Mrs. Mack's great-grandson is Bill Sudek, who is the Bells' son-in-law.

In the midst of staggering through their own troubles, George Bell and Sudek took a small rubber boat across the flooded field. They found Mrs. Mack curled on a sofa with water covering her floors and an oil tank banging on the side of the house. The men carried Mrs. Mack and her son to safety.

Yesterday, Kathleen Bell trudged between her home and the home of her next-door neighbors, Mary Prietz, 46, and her mother, Lena DeMarco, 73. Now Prietz stood in an opening that was formerly a doorway above an empty space that used to be a porch. She and her mother stayed throughout the storm.

"I was in the bedroom getting clothes when the porch came off," she said. "Then I heard the back doors cave in. I was knee-deep in water, and my mother was screaming at me to get out. I looked on the side of the house, and there were whitecaps coming through. Where were we gonna go? We went upstairs to the second floor. I kept thinking, is the roof gonna blow?"

Ironically, Prietz owns a business in Pennsylvania, Serv Pro, that cleans out houses after floods and fires.

"It could have been worse," Prietz said.

"Absolutely," Kathleen Bell agreed. "We're all alive. Some of these elderly have no place to go. I heard one of them say, 'Well, I guess it's time for Oak Crest,' " the senior citizen community.

Minutes later, as she walked along the stretch of yards along the water, she spotted curtains wrapped around a neighbor's pole. "Oh, look," she said. "There's my living room curtains."

Behind her, Hart-Miller Island was off in the distance. The morning sky was gray, and as the murky waters slapped against the stone abutment off Bell's yard, a wayward screen door was tossed about.

"They say it's gonna rain," Kathleen said. "Well, what else can it do to us?"

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