For Isabel victims, another trailer winter

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Snowstorms were once a cause for celebration at the Thaden house on Anne Arundel County's southern coast.

Dad, Jim, would get a fire going and mom, Eileen, would bake cookies and heat up a pot of chili. Daughters Bonnie, 16, and Katie, 13, might have friends over to build snow forts in the family's ample yard. The day would conclude with movies or board games in a toasty den.

But last weekend's snowstorm invited dread and boredom. Would the pipes freeze? Would it be too cold to do anything but wrap yourself in a comforter and go to sleep?

"It really wasn't much fun at all," Eileen Thaden said.

That's winter in an 8-by-29-foot trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The Thadens are one of more than 120 Maryland families - many in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties - whose homes were wrecked by Tropical Storm Isabel and are spending their second winter in government trailers.

Three Florida hurricanes and an Asian tsunami later, the focus of the country's disaster relief efforts has long since turned from Isabel, which slammed the Maryland coast in September 2003.

Eileen Thaden wishes she had the luxury of shifting her attention elsewhere.

When interviewed last spring, Thaden said the one thing she'd most like to avoid was another winter in the trailer. But she's living the misery of frozen pipes, moldy clothes and drafty walls all over again. Worse still, the Thadens, who live in Shady Side, aren't much closer to settling with their insurance company and rebuilding their house than they were six months ago.

Theirs is a familiar story among the Isabel victims, many of whom can't get the insurance settlements they think they deserve and can't afford to rebuild under more stringent environmental and construction guidelines enacted since the coastal homes were erected.

The displaced homeowners are so frustrated that, among other measures, they're considering a mass lawsuit against the National Flood Insurance Program. That threat follows a federal class action lawsuit filed last spring on behalf of thousands of Isabel victims.

Locally, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. has criticized FEMA's treatment of storm victims and called for an investigation of the federal flood program. Of the families remaining in trailers, 53 live in Baltimore County, 28 live in Anne Arundel and the rest are scattered around Harford County, the Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland.

Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes have also called for investigations and written to FEMA.

"There are clearly problems within FEMA that have resulted in [Isabel] victims not collecting correct amounts of assistance," Mikulski wrote in a letter this week asking senatorial colleagues to investigate the agency.

Also this week, a Republican congresswoman from Virginia wrote to the White House calling for an investigation of the flood insurance program and the "low-ball" settlement offers made to families.

Meanwhile, Isabel victims have followed with interest reports that the agency paid out nearly $30 million in Hurricane Frances damage claims in parts of Florida that were not hit directly by that Labor Day storm. FEMA officials recently acknowledged overpaying Florida residents by $12 million.

A FEMA spokesman could not be reached for comment Thursday or Friday.

Maryland storm victims say they don't hold much hope for official help.

"We just feel abandoned by the whole process," said Debbie Simon, an Edgemere resident who has lived in a FEMA trailer since December 2003. "If those people spent one night in a trailer, living in the situation we're living in, they'd be on it the next day. It's unimaginable."

The indignities of winter life in the trailers are many.

The inside walls are forever covered in condensation, which freezes on particularly cold days. "Papers get yucky, clothes get yucky, everything's always damp, and sometimes things get moldy," Eileen Thaden said.

The walls are thin and not insulated, meaning the girls, who sleep in cubbies pressed against the side of the trailer, have to swaddle themselves in three or four blankets each.

"When you're sitting here, you can actually feel the cold coming in through the wall," said Katie Thaden.

When the pipes freeze, as they have twice this winter, the kids go to friends' houses. One morning, Eileen Thaden trudged through the snow to a friend's trailer to bum a quick shower.

The Christmas season reminded the family how much life has changed. The trailer is too small for a tree, and the oven isn't up to cookie baking.

The family went to Florida for the holiday, and Eileen said she was so excited to have a real kitchen that she cooked up a storm - amaretto cakes, baked hams, chicken cordon bleu and a breakfast casserole of sausage, eggs and cheese.

She's not sure when the family's situation will improve.

The Thadens' insurance offer has increased from $75,000 to $125,000, but that still wouldn't give the family enough to rebuild, Eileen Thaden said.

They can't get county permits to rebuild the house until they elevate its foundation four feet. That could cost as much as $100,000. They say they can't get a loan from the state until they hire a contractor, and they don't want to do that with their insurance unsettled.

Life can seem dire enough that Eileen Thaden briefly considered applying for help from the ABC television program Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, on which crews rebuild houses for struggling families.

Simon had lived in her Baltimore County house only a year when Isabel's surge sent the Back River flowing into her living room. Before the storm, she loved watching the sun set over the river or wandering to the water's edge to feed a familiar pair of ducks.

But such pleasant memories are long gone.

On a recent morning, she and her husband had to blast ice from their door frame with a hairdryer just to get out. Another day, Simon paced the trailer with a thermometer - 50 degrees on the uncarpeted floor, 58 degrees in the bedroom, 66 degrees in the dead center of the 232 square feet.

On several occasions, the sewage pipes have frozen, burst and spewed waste into the yard.

Simon was insured for $177,000 and, she said, suffered about $120,000 in damage according to contractor estimates. But she said she received a $70,000 insurance settlement and is building a modular home instead of trying to rebuild her two-story house.

"I've lived in a trailer longer than I lived in my home," she said. "You wonder: Why are we still going through this?"

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