Owners on the Shore ponder whether to rehab or rebuild

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ROCK HALL - The trolley used to stop at Linda and Richard Schauer's water garden so riders could gaze at the goldfish and lily pads in the gurgling pond.

Drivers stopped yesterday to gawk at the swamp left behind by Tropical Storm Isabel, searching vainly for the beauty that once drew the lovelorn to crouch on the stones at night.

"It's really hard to believe now, but people in this town used to be proud of this water garden," said Linda Schauer, an illustrator who spent three nights in an emergency shelter before venturing back to her home.

Jay Jacobs, mayor of the former fishing village, led representatives from federal and state emergency agencies on an hourlong tour of Rock Hall, introducing them to the worst-hit area in Kent County and pointing out examples of devastation such as the Schauers' property and the public pier.

Officials from towns across the Eastern Shore slammed by last week's storm began assessing their losses while making headway toward recovery.

On Smith Island, members scrambled to clean the flooded basement and vestibule of Union Methodist Church in time for a wedding Saturday and a christening Sunday morning.

Phone service remained spotty for the 300 residents of the island, where amateur weather watchers clocked sustained winds of more than 80 mph as Isabel approached.

"Some homes got some water, some watermen lost their crab shanties, a new refrigerator was ruined in the church basement," said Connie Marshall, the postmaster in Tylerton, one of three tiny towns on the island. "But we have drinking water, electric and enough phones working to handle an emergency. We never lost any lives, and no one lost a house. It's been bad, but we all came out pretty good."

In Rock Hall, officials said it was too soon to compile accurate damage estimates, as they began figuring costs for debris removal and public safety. But Jacobs said debris collected at curbs on the peninsula would cover an area the size of a football field, 4 feet deep.

"And I figure we're about 25 percent done," said Jacobs, whose town of 1,700 runs on an annual budget of $738,164.

Bill Weldon, owner of the 40-year-old Waterman's Crab House in Rock Hall, tried not to sound overwhelmed by the sight of toppled windows outside the dining room and buckled deck boards on the patio.

"But every time I come back in it upsets me," said Weldon, who toured the restaurant with his insurance adjuster just after sunrise. "I still can't get used to seeing it like this."

Weldon, like many property owners here yesterday, still didn't know whether demolition or rehabilitation was the answer to Isabel's damage.

Some homes were easy bets to be torn down, such as the bungalow 15 feet from the bay left barely standing after the storm surge swept through, taking the waterfront side of the house. Or Arlene Douglas' blue clapboard house across the road from the Rock Hall public beach. Four days of frantic cleaning gave the sunken living room the appearance of normality, but Douglas said the wood floors were beginning to bulge and the walls to mildew.

"Maybe we'll build a two-story, double-porch house with a historic Charleston look," mused Douglas, a developer. "My main concern is it's gonna be up, a few feet off the ground."

The fate of other houses was more complicated. Like most others, the Schauers' white ranch house and yard smelled faintly of mildew and diesel fuel, and clouds of mosquitoes hovered in the dank air.

The property became a collection point for floating lawn furniture, propane tanks, water skis and other bits and pieces of waterfront life. The couple carefully picked their belongings from the flotsam and jetsam, but without flood insurance, their options seemed bleak.

"We're gonna clean up," said Schauer, wearily, squeezing water from a scroll depicting her extensive family tree that tracks her Irish great-grandfather back to Flannabhra O'Malley, chief of Umhall, in 773 A.D. "Then we're gonna put the 'For Sale' sign up."

All along the Eastern Shore, the determined cleanup continued.

In Talbot County, officials said Oxford and Tilghman Island were hardest hit. County officials, who are evaluating the damage to a year-old pier on the Tred Avon River, have not given the go-ahead for service to resume on the Oxford-Bellevue ferry, the nation's oldest privately owned ferry.

At the height of the storm, water spilled from Dogwood Harbor, the commercial boat basin on Harris Creek, sending a 5-feet-deep stream across Tilghman Island. Old-timers said Isabel was easily the equal of Hurricane Hazel, which ripped through in 1954.

Levin F. "Bud" Harrison IV, whose family owns the Chesapeake House restaurant, an oyster packing company and a charter fishing business, said two docks were destroyed but the popular Tilghman restaurant suffered little damage. The big hit, he said, was cancellations of weekend fishing trips that cost the family business more than $50,000.

Lanoula Sullivan, who operates the Bay Hundred Restaurant on Knapps Narrows, planned to reopen today. Glancing at photographs of the flooded waterway yesterday, Sullivan said she was thankful it wasn't worse.

"You wouldn't believe it unless you lived through it," Sullivan said. "We stayed here until about midnight Thursday."

Andy Schulz, a Kent Island restaurant owner who bought a waterfront site, the old B&S Fisheries building, a week ago Friday, wasn't sure yesterday what his family would do with the property they had hoped to restore.

"It was immaculate, and it's probably the oldest oyster packing place left on Kent Island," he said. "We don't have flood insurance, so I'm not sure how it's going to go."

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