Assessing the wet aftermath of Isabel


James M. Harkins, It's 11 o'clock on the morning after Isabel's whirlwind trip through Harford County, and Executive James M. Harkins is stuck in traffic on the way to Havre de Grace, where he has heard a $2.5 million boardwalk is floating like matchsticks in the Chesapeake Bay.

"You know all those people the governor told to stay home and keep their cars off the road," he asks, chuckling, talking to his director of administration, John J. O'Neill Jr., on the car phone. "None of them did."

As he's waiting, he balances a legal pad on his knee to write down sites where water tankers are available for residents and scribbles phone numbers of politicians to call. The pad sits on a file folder full of information gleaned about damage from emergency operations center calls. The phone, his hip cell and two scanners are positioned around him, offering up the latest on cleanup work.

For Harkins, it's well into his day of work as assessor and advocate, trying to figure out which areas have suffered most from Hurricane Isabel, reassuring angry citizens and lobbying for aid for his hard-hit communities.

He caught a nap from about 2 a.m. to 5:30 a.m. in the Emergency Operations Center in Hickory, where he directs the county's response to natural disasters and other emergencies.

But for now, he's out of the bunker and into the field, in jeans and a baseball cap, to see the storm whose damage so far was estimated at $18.2 million for the county, including public and private destruction and overtime work.

About 15 minutes after getting free of the traffic snarl, he pulls into the city offices in Havre de Grace, where Mayor David R. Craig and other city officials are waiting to drive him to Tydings Park and the town's marina, where submerged tanks have left a strong fuel smell on the waterfront.

They snake through crowds of curious onlookers who jump over police tape to get closer to the water, where the promenade, built with state and county money but maintained by the city, lays in ruins.

"Until you see it," Harkins begins, gazing out at what was once a top tourist attraction. "They described it to me on the phone. Words don't describe the site. This is just devastating."

The lighthouse keeper's house across from Concord Point Light, on the Susquehanna River side, sticks out from water where there once was a yard.

"That water come up real quick," a tired-looking Dale Tudor says to the group as they pass by. Tudor got up in the early hours to watch the surge roll across yards and streets. "You thought it was the sun coming up, and it was the water coming up."

Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent here in recent years and at other parks along the water, Craig said, including Frank J. Hutchins Memorial Park, where the paddle-wheeler Lantern Queen was beached atop its bulkhead, piers, ties and all.

Homes in Seneca Pointe are flooded; a road has collapsed. Harkins takes it all in quietly before he heads off to Perryman, on Route 159 and the Bush River.

During the day's drive, he runs through other things happening around the county. The sign shop is rushing to make additional stop signs for intersections where lights aren't working. Calls are being made to find ways to feed overtime employees because the power is out. Workers are being called in from other departments to cut downed trees - even work-release inmates are helping to haul branches.

In between, there are the calls, from U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a 2nd District Democrat, to the governor's office, one or two from home, where cleanup also has to proceed, even if he's not there.

He tells Ruppersberger about the promenade. "I don't have beans to replace it," he says. "I'm going to need some help from somewhere."

In Perryman, he's confronted with an angry knot of residents who mainly want to know where the dry ice is. They aren't alone. More than 7,000 people have called the emergency operations center looking for it. But the closest site for Harford's BGE customers was in Timonium.

Some residents of Park Beach Drive hop in canoes and paddle down what was their street to survey water damage to their homes, which they had to evacuate hours earlier.

Harkins gets back into his Trailblazer and drives past floating campers, felled trees, exclaiming now and again at new scenes of destruction.

But, he notes, as he watches neighbors talking in yards and groups of parents and children walking down to the water, "The one thing a storm does do is get families together. Out of all bad something comes a little good."

His last stop is Otter Point Yacht Club, where one member angrily shoos him away from the tiny, crowded street, until Harkins explains who he is and why he's here.

He goes inside and checks out the flooding along the slips. Randy Garrett, a member at the club, shows Harkins photos he and some others took about 4 a.m., posing in front of a plate-glass window as the water crept up the outside - before the glass broke, sending water racing in through the basement.

Harkins heads out from the club, and back up U.S. 40 to Havre de Grace, where he has two television spots at 3 p.m. - with Craig and Ruppersberger, who has called to say he's on his way.

Before Isabel rolled in, he had planned to take off early, to catch a Harley show in York, Pa., with friends.

It's like he told one of them earlier, who called him on the car phone to razz him about missing the trip: "I'm finally working for my pay," he said smiling as he drove. "No rocking-chair money today."

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