A few days after Tropical Storm Isabel flooded their Millers Island home with more than 3 feet of water, Dale and Georgia Poling watched a dozen workers jump out of a truck and scramble into the house, ready to stop mold that was spreading across the walls.
Their house had been devastated, but because they had flood insurance, they believed everything would be all right. Then the workers drew horizontal plumb lines and began sawing straight across the drywall, about 4 feet off the floor. The crew removed the bottom of the walls - leaving the top half nailed to the studs.
"It's ridiculous," Georgia Poling said. "You know that stuff is like a sponge. That mold's going all the way up into your ceiling."
What the Polings soon found out was that such piecemeal repairs - replacing only the portion of the wall that touched water - are standard procedure under the National Flood Insurance Program.
And as they pursued an insurance claim, they ran into many other surprises, including the discovery that while their home was overinsured, its contents were not covered at all.
Amid the political finger-pointing that has surrounded the insurance industry's response to the September storm, the Polings, like hundreds of other Isabel victims, have found themselves on a voyage of frustration and despair. They see absurdity in the government and insurance bureaucracies, but there's no laughing about it.
A common tale
Some details of their experience are unique - such as the 37-day stretch when their government-supplied trailer lacked water. But according to state and Baltimore County officials, their struggles over flood insurance are all too common.
The Polings, like many of their waterfront neighbors in eastern Baltimore County, spend hours a day on the phone pleading their case. And after so much time, they're burned out.
"I can't tell you one day since Sept. 19th that I've had an easy day," Georgia Poling said. "Not one."
Dale and Georgia Poling, both 40, moved to Millers Island nine years ago, and when a 1923 shore shack overlooking Back River went up for sale five years ago, they bought it. They put on an addition and a second story, and moved in with their boys, Dale Jr. and Brian.
Dale Sr. wasn't home the night of the storm. He's an inspector for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and was on duty that night. But Georgia, who owns Heritage Food Market in Dundalk, tried to stick it out with the boys.
About 2 a.m., when water started coming up through the floor, they called 911 and waded out, lanterns held over their heads, to a neighbor's house on higher ground.
They called their insurance agent the next day. "They were very sympathetic to our cause at that time," Dale Poling said.
Flood insurance is a federal program, but the policies are mostly written and serviced by private companies. The Polings bought their policy from Fred Meyer and Sons, an independent agent in Edgemere, though the policy itself was issued by a Pennsylvania company, the Harleysville Group.
An adjuster came to the house several days after the storm. The Polings had assumed that their flood insurance covered the contents of their home. It didn't. If they had known, they would have bought the additional coverage. But, they said, no one ever mentioned it them.
A representative of Fred Meyer and Sons, Marty Spatafore, said the agency owners declined to comment.
Though disappointed that their contents weren't covered, the Polings were otherwise optimistic. The adjuster's first comment to them, they said, was that they were overinsured, with $190,000 in coverage for a $140,000 house. They figured they would have no problem getting enough to start rebuilding.
"When he leaves, you feel good, but when in five days you get a piece of paper saying they're going to give you $45,000 to fix your house, then the fighting begins," Dale Poling said.
Mark Stevens, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees the federal flood insurance program, said such policies replace only what is touched by the flood waters, drywall included. In a flooded kitchen, a policy would pay to remove and replace the base cabinets but not the top cabinets.
"Good luck finding ones that match," Georgia Poling said.
The insurance won't pay to replace upper drywall or ceilings that might be contaminated with mold, but will pay for Clorox to be sprayed on them.
Throughout much of it all, the Poling family - two adults, two teen-age boys, two cats and a black Labrador named Bear - squeezed into a trailer that FEMA towed into their yard.
The trailer is more of a portable camper than a mobile home, with a bed in front behind sliding doors, a fold-out couch and another tiny bed in the back.
One morning in December, the pipes in the house burst, sending water into its crawl space. The trailer had been hooked up to the house's plumbing, so it lost water service, too. The Polings called FEMA, whose officials agreed to move the trailer to the front yard and hook it up directly to the water and sewer lines.
It took them 37 days to do it, the Polings said. Meanwhile, they asked FEMA for vouchers for a new place to live, but the agency sent a letter refusing, saying they had been given a trailer. They got a seven- day hotel voucher from the Red Cross, but the rest of the time they were on their own, bouncing between relatives' houses and hotels.
However, FEMA officials subsequently apologized to the Polings and offered to reimburse them for their hotel stays and help with other expenses.
Last month, Dale Poling said, things began to improve. The Polings filled out a questionnaire for a study being conducted by former Maryland Insurance Commissioner Steven B. Larsen, and he started making phone calls on their behalf.
Larsen's study, which was commissioned by Baltimore County, led to a political squabble between County Executive James T. Smith Jr. and Maryland Insurance Commissioner Alfred W. Redmer Jr. over whether the commissioner could have helped the victims more.
When a House of Delegates committee held a hearing on Isabel insurance problems, the Polings went to Annapolis to testify. A Maryland Insurance Administration staffer called the next day, and a worker there started helping them.
And they met a FEMA contractor who worked with their adjuster to increase their settlement by $10,000, to about $80,000.
Still, not everything was squared away.
Their policy had been written as if their home were built on a slab foundation, not a crawl space, meaning they had been paying too little for their coverage. They said their insurance agent had never inspected their home. Stevens, of FEMA, said the government doesn't require agents to do so.
But when discrepancies like that occur, policy holders have to make up for the difference between the rates they paid and those they should have paid before a claim can be settled, said Don Beaton, the chief underwriter for the National Flood Insurance Program.
When the Polings heard they owed another $1,638, they were shocked. The money was deducted from their settlement.
Check is in the mail
The Polings received confirmation from Harleysville, which declined to comment for this article, that a check had been sent on Jan. 29 to an independent adjuster that the family had worked with. They have been told they'll get the check soon.
On Friday, contractors delivered materials to start raising the house on a new foundation, 10 feet above the ground.
Even with the prospect of work starting on the house, the Polings said they don't feel as if they're close to resolution. The path has been too long and hard, they said.
"I think I'm just going to collapse when my house is finished," Georgia Poling said. "I'm just going to collapse."