Still recovering from Sandy, Crisfield braces for next storm

Hazel Cropper, for years the fastest crab picker in this city built on its seafood industry, worries about the storm drain a few feet from her living room.

As volunteers assessed the damage Superstorm Sandy caused to her home, the 74-year-old noted that the drain backs up whenever it rains, flooding the street. She wondered if it would put her home back under water in the next big storm.

"I try to not even think about it," said Cropper, who worked in crab houses most of her life and earned the nickname "Hurricane Hazel" for the speed at which she dismantled blue crabs at annual competitions she inevitably won. "I'm leaving it in God's hands."

This poor, Eastern Shore city of 2,710 people is beginning to rebuild from the floods that accompanied Sandy — the worst experienced here in 80 years — but faces major challenges as its leaders embark on the far more difficult task of preparing for future storms.

Improving storm runoff will be a part of that effort. So will raising homes above high water marks and rebuilding the city's barrier islands, which are slowly eroding into Tangier Sound.

The ability of Crisfield and other communities to move quickly on those plans will hinge in part on whether Congress approves a roughly $50 billion bill that calls for more spending on flood control, shoreline protection and other storm mitigation projects. The Senate passed the measure on Dec. 28, and the House of Representatives is scheduled to vote Tuesday.

While the underlying legislation is controversial — it includes millions in spending unrelated to Sandy — even some fiscally conservative Republicans acknowledge the value in many of the programs. GOP lawmakers from the Northeast, notably New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, have urged Washington to act quickly.

In its heyday, Crisfield was the second-largest city in Maryland — so rich in seafood that it expanded its footprint into the Chesapeake Bay by building on top of tons of discarded shells. But the "seafood capital of the world" is becoming more vulnerable every year to the waters that support its dwindling crab and oyster industries.

Virtually the entire city lies less than three feet above sea level and is prone to flooding even in less severe storms. A 2007 planning study estimated that a hypothetical Category 1 hurricane making landfall nearby would swamp Crisfield under four feet of water, affecting 2,400 homes.

Sandy shed its hurricane strength winds before coming ashore 120 miles away in New Jersey on Oct. 29, yet it still damaged at least 300 houses here.

Many residents, including Cropper, have still not returned home. Cropper's floor and a large section of her walls have been removed. Pictures of her grandchildren and the trophies she won in crab contests have been moved to higher ground. A red couch in the center of her living room is still damp.

About $1.5 million in disaster aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency has flowed into Crisfield to help individuals, but that money — for those lucky enough to receive it — is being used largely for immediate repairs. For now, only one family in town is raising their home. Roughly 1,000 people registered for aid and more than 800 are expected to receive it.

Deneene Holland is grateful for the FEMA assistance her family received and also for the dozens of church volunteers that have come from other cities to rebuild homes. But the money doesn't come close to the $15,000 to $25,000 she believes it will cost to raise her foundation above the flood line.

"It could be done down the road," Holland, 43, said of raising the house. "But we've been out of our home since the end of October. We can't wait."

As part of the disaster declaration signed by President Obama on Nov. 20, Maryland will receive federal hazard mitigation money that can be used to raise homes or build berms and sea walls to lessen a storm's impact. But that money is first distributed to the state, which must decide where it is most needed. And that process can take months, at least.

Crisfield officials for years sought money under that program to purchase and install 24 tide gates on the city's storm drainage pipes, an effort that would prevent at least some flooding. The $125,000 grant finally arrived last year, days ahead of Sandy.

Now, Mayor Percy J. Purnell hopes to use federal mitigation money to shore up Janes Island to the west of Crisfield and Great Point to the south to buffer the city from high seas. Both barriers are vanishing as sea levels rise and tides erode their shores. The Army Corps of Engineers office in Baltimore is studying the plan and expects to complete an initial assessment in a few months.

"The islands … are washing away; there are breaks through them already," Purnell said. Restoring them, he said, "will stop the constant rolling in of the seas in a storm and will help protect the community."

It will also take money. A similar effort on Assateague Island cost millions. But both Republican Rep. Andy Harris, who represents the Eastern Shore, and Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin, say the restoration effort probably spared Ocean City from additional damage during Sandy.

"Clearly, one could make the argument that some mitigation projects are financially beneficial to the taxpayer," said Harris, who is withholding judgment on the broader disaster bill until he sees how much of it will be paid for.

Democrats have supported the disaster funding. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who as the recently appointed chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee helped shape the legislation, will tour Crisfield Wednesday. Cardin visited on Thursday.

"This bill should have passed before now. Uncertainty causes so much anxiety," Cardin told city officials. "We've got to let people know, including the mayor, what the rules are."

The federal government initially denied aid for Marylanders affected by the storm, but then, in a rare move, reversed that decision for Somerset County.

Separately, Congress is working on a broad aid package. Lawmakers approved a pared down bill to fund the National Flood Insurance Program and agreed to consider the rest of the spending when lawmakers return to Washington this week.

Edward A. Thomas, president of the Natural Hazard Mitigation Association, noted that it is usually easier to prepare for the next storm while rebuilding from the last one. But Thomas acknowledged there is a steep learning curve to navigating the bureaucracy of federal and state disaster relief programs.

"Following a disaster, people have to rebuild differently," he said, "but for homeowners who have just gone through the worst event of their lives, we are not making it easier for them."

For now, Crisfield remains focused on the present. As many as 50 residents are streaming into the city's disaster recovery center every day. The watermen who were once central to the city's economy are scrambling to replace their pots and shanties — most of which was uninsurable.

"We still have houses that are just saturated, with people living in them," said Billie Jo Chandler, who owns a pizzeria on Richardson Avenue and who, along with attorney John Phoebus, has coordinated the volunteer response effort for months.

FEMA reports there have been 800 flood insurance claims from Maryland, but many homeowners here do not carry insurance. Houses have been passed down through generations, mortgages are paid off and the premiums are simply too high for some families. Homeowners who receive FEMA aid are required to carry flood insurance or risk forgoing federal help in the next storm.

Cropper, for instance, has received no federal aid after this storm because she dropped a flood insurance policy after receiving disaster aid decades ago. Her home has flooded three times since she and her husband bought it in 1974, but she said it has never been this bad.

For those who have it, insurance hasn't necessarily been a panacea. In a city of old homes, including many that were in disrepair before the storm, insurance adjusters have struggled to determine which claims are legitimate. The Maryland Insurance Administration reports that 92 Somerset County families have asked the agency to look into claim disputes.

Jenna Howard owns a large, two-story home in Crisfield and carries both homeowners and flood insurance policies. Neither has paid out yet. Until they do, or formally deny her, she is ineligible for FEMA aid, which pays for costs not covered by flood insurance.

So for the past two months, Howard and her three boys — ages 7, 6 and 3 — have camped out in the one room of their home that was not severely damaged, making do with a single electrical outlet and no hot water. Howard, 26, said she's hesitant to make repairs on the home for fear it will lessen her chances for receiving insurance money or aid.

"I'm still waiting for the flood insurance to actually say if they're going to pay anything," Howard said. "We're all getting a little anxious."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad