SOON THE FLOOD tide will recede: not Isabel's wrath, but our fleeting attention spans. Television, having exhausted its potential for dramatic pictures, will look elsewhere for thrills. The front-page newspaper stories will fade away. All that will remain are victims still trying to pick up the pieces of their lives, and wondering if government will stick around when the world stops paying attention.
The survivors are still out there. You see them at the disaster relief centers on food lines, and they pick through the remains of their ruined homes and meet with tired relief workers doing their best against long odds. Nobody was fully prepared for this, and nobody's got a grip on it yet.
"There's so much anxiety and so much frustration," Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. was saying the other day, as he toured remaining disaster sites. "I hope these people understand how much we want to help, and how much we have limitations."
The cameras have receded, but the human struggle has not. On Water's Edge Road in Dundalk last week, Crystal Isaacs piled up the debris from her flooded basement, and her neighbor Ed Groff carried it away. Isaacs is 85 and diminutive. Groff is 55, retired from Bethlehem Steel and built like a defensive tackle. In the grubby aftermath of Tropical Storm Isabel, he could not keep up with Isaacs.
"Hey," he called out good-naturedly, "one of us has to slow down, huh? The storm's over. We got time."
"You've got time," Isaacs called back. "You're 55, I'm 85."
"Well, you're not gonna see 86 at this pace," Groff said.
He cut short his laugh as Isaacs handed him another piece of busted goods. These people are thrilling to behold, thousands of them. They took nature's big blow, and they remain standing and sometimes laughing in spite of everything. They saw their homes wrecked, their businesses ruined, their savings lost. Now they fill the relief centers, and they deal with the government bureaucrats and the insurance agencies, and they try to keep up with the routines of going to work each day, feeding the kids, coping with exhaustion.
And hoping they won't be overlooked.
You see them now at locations like Back River Neck Road, in eastern Baltimore County. Hundreds have shown up each day since the storm. Inside a converted recreation center, government agencies try to offer help. Outside, the Salvation Army has set up tables for hot food and emergency supplies. Elaine Gardner and her brother Ron Wells availed themselves.
"It's overwhelming," said Gardner. "If I didn't have my kids and my family, I'd have given up." She said a man from the Federal Emergency Management Agency had spent an hour talking to her and evaluating the damage to her Dundalk basement.
"And they couldn't be nicer," she said. "But they have to evaluate, like an insurance company. What kind of money we can get, and how long it'll take - who knows?"
It's the same concern as County Executive Smith's.
"My fear," he said, "is that the governor has elevated the expectations of people beyond what FEMA and [the Maryland Emergency Management Agency] have to offer. For repairs, for replacement of homes, for emergencies, the average payout is $3,200. That won't pay for a lot. People come to these centers and look for emergency lodging, and they're told, 'OK, we've got your claim, and you'll get some money soon.' But they need help tonight.
"As people's shock and disbelief wears off, and the reality of their losses sets in, they're going to expect agencies like FEMA and MEMA to be their saviors, and it just isn't the way it is. There are caps on everything. People want help now. We know that. We're trying to cut through red tape. We've already issued the first permit to build a new home. Those permits usually take six weeks at a minimum. But a lot of this is going to come down to people's strength of spirit, and not government assistance."
"We understand people's frustration," said FEMA spokesman Mike Sweet. "This is a real disaster, and it's stressful for everybody."
You can see it at the Back River Neck Road relief center. In the crowd was Ronald Trabert, 69, retired from the American Can Co. He said he had 28 inches of water in his Dundalk basement. His son was with him. He is Tech. Sgt. Ken Trabert, who took leave from Westover Air Force Base in Palmer, Mass., and rushed here.
"You can't live in that house any more, Pop," said the younger Trabert.
"Story of my life," the older man muttered.
"Worked so hard your whole life."
"And your mother. Sick since the day I married her."
His wife died six years ago.
"She'd never have survived this," the son said. "And you, with bronchitis. And you won't be able to turn on the heat this winter, not with the house like it is now."
So they come to the places like Back River Neck Road, to the relief centers. And they stand on line and take hot meals from the Salvation Army workers. And they try not to give in to despair. And they hope that, when most of us turn elsewhere to get on with our lives, and big media have moved on, that government will not forget. And insurance companies will not turn away.