To repair or raze in Balto. County

Sun Staff

Darlene Stefanowicz was calm and collected yesterday as the building inspector determined that her house needs to be torn down and dispensed tips on rebuilding.

Emma Wetzelberger had to admit that she was disappointed when that inspector said her in-laws' house is standing up just fine.

Along the coast of eastern Baltimore County, where Isabel ravaged hundreds of homes, residents are combing through belongings and trying to figure out how to rebuild. Amid a stench of fuel oil and must and piles of trash and ruined furniture, they are asking county officials to guide them through a monumental cleanup.

The man Stefanowicz, Wetzelberger and others turned to yesterday was Rodney Larrick, a mild-mannered inspector carrying file folders and fluorescent orange "DANGER - THIS BUILDING IS UNSAFE" signs.

Officially, Larrick's job is to determine which houses are on the verge of collapse and which aren't. Unofficially, his duties were greatly expanded yesterday as he patiently dispensed advice to people who didn't know where else to turn. "They look to the county to do virtually everything," he said. "It's really tough."

Larrick, 45, began his field work shortly before 9 a.m. yesterday, clad in jeans, a short-sleeved plaid shirt and wire-rim glasses. He responded first to a call in the 1800 block of Wilson Point Road.

Wetzelberger was hoping Larrick would find structural damage because maybe then she would be able to get her elderly in-laws out of the house. Lorraine and William Wetzelberger refused to leave their home of 55 years even as water filled their basement and first floor early Friday morning. Their daughter-in-law fears the overwhelming odor will make them sick.

Larrick dutifully lets Wetzelberger family members lead him through the dark, muddy basement and watches as they point to cracks in the ceiling and swelling in the floor.

"I don't see any structural damage," he says. "Your house is not unsafe. It's obviously got a lot of water damage."

Lorraine Wetzelberger, 75, a retired teacher, tells Larrick that she doesn't have flood insurance. He refers her to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "They're gonna help you," he says.

But she heard that FEMA will cover only $25,000 in damage, and "we couldn't begin to replace everything for $25,000."

Larrick says that, for now, the best thing she can do is get some air through the house. "If you get that floor dried out, it's gonna come down some," he says reassuringly. "You'd be surprised." He also tells her to be sure to choose her contractor carefully when she rebuilds because not everyone out there is honest.

The Wetzelbergers ask Larrick to go across the street to the Harringtons' house, where mold has started to grow on the hardwood floors. Larrick obliges. He suggests a spray bleach-water solution and offers his sympathy to Russ Harrington, 65, who lost the antique toy business he ran in the basement.

Next up is a visit to the 2700 block of Holly Beach Road. There Larrick finds Stefanowicz and her two sons, ages 10 and 16, in a camper in the driveway. They don't need Larrick's orange sign to know their light blue house with red shutters is uninhabitable. The foundation had popped out, the floor on the back porch was caving, and the roof in back had come down.

"The waves were just pounding," Stefanowicz, a 43-year-old paralegal, tells Larrick. "It was Ocean City-size waves going against the garage. ... You could see the carpet moving. We had to get out of here."

Larrick talks to Stefanowicz about how to rebuild her house in accordance with federal flood-plain regulations, up much higher than where it sits.

Then he goes on his way, without issuing an order for the Stefanowiczs to tear down or repair their house within a certain number of days. He knows they're doing the best they can. "They don't need any more aggravation from the county," he says.

On the 1200 block of Bayside Road, Larrick posts his "DANGER" signs on four collapsing houses. No one is home at any of them, and it appears two were not inhabited even before the tropical storm. One house had floated about 12 feet through the mud. Another's front walls were blown off, with a green couch and cabinets sliding down a sloping floor under a falling roof.

Larrick sees several other homes on Bayside Road that have suffered severe water damage. From his cell phone, he tells his boss that they need to get someone back out there immediately with fliers about the help FEMA is offering.

Heading toward Millers Island, Larrick points out the unscathed houses built in accordance with the flood-plain regulations. "It's amazing what a reasonably designed building will take in a storm," he says. He drives by one waterfront house he inspected when it was built to make sure it was OK. It was.

On Cuckold Point Road, Tom Gielner notices Larrick's white Jeep Cherokee with a county logo emblazoned on the doors and flags him over.

"Does the county have any engineers to look at structural damage?" asks Gielner, an Overnite Transportation Co. employee. "My kitchen floor is doing tricks."

"You're talking to one of them now," Larrick replies, turning the Jeep around and pulling into Gielner's driveway.

The floor, in fact, is not collapsing, but Larrick suggests that Gielner and his wife replace the particle board under the tile, which he says will cause them grief as it continues to swell. When he hears they were thinking of rebuilding the whole house anyway before the storm, he tells them, too, about the flood regulations.

Finding no more collapsing houses on the rest of his drive through Millers Island, Larrick heads back to his office in Towson by 2:30 p.m. to write reports on the places he has seen. His only lunch is an iced green tea and a bag of potato chips that he ate over two hours.

He hasn't had a day off since Isabel hit. He lost power at his home in southern Pennsylvania during the storm, so he didn't know that the county was shut down Friday and reported to work. After making the 34-mile drive to Towson and finding his office closed, he went in anyway and spent the day fielding phone calls. He expects it will be a good long time before his schedule returns to normal.

"This is going to be an overwhelming job," he said. "So many people don't know what to do."

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