Somerset County struggles to recover from Sandy

CRISFIELD — — WatermanJohnny Parks was 9 years old when Hurricane Hazel slammed Maryland's Eastern Shore in October 1954. Until this week, he thought he might never see a storm like that again.

On Wednesday, he surveyed what Sandy had wrought at the shack where he sorts and packages the crabs he catches on the Chesapeake Bay: a mess of soggy paperwork, an overturned freezer and three antique cars soaked to the floorboards.

"I'm 68 years old, and I've never seen water that high," said Parks, of Rumbley, who was among more than 550 people rescued from rising floodwaters in this southwestern corner of the Eastern Shore where residents' livelihood is won and lost on the bay. During the storm, Parks was worried that Ellen, his wife of 44 years who has heart problems, wouldn't survive the terror.

At the peak, Sandy knocked out power for 85 percent of Somerset County's 26,000 residents, leaving the self-proclaimed "Crab Capital of the World" among the hardest-hit parts of Maryland. Two days after the storm hit, about a quarter of the population was still without electricity, more than 25 roads remained closed and some 350 people couldn't return to their homes.

Caskets floated in an unmarked cemetery along Halls Creek Road in Fairmount, uprooted trees dotted the landscape and standing water surrounded houses throughout the county.

At Somerset's emergency operations center, about 30 officials discussed the best strategies for calculating a damage estimate by a 5 p.m. Thursday deadline, what debris to allow at a local landfill and a longer-term housing solution for those displaced by the storm.

Washington High School and Academy in Princess Anne is serving as a shelter. The school and others won't be able to open until officials can find a place for the residents housed there.

Rex Simpkins, president of the Somerset County Board of Commissioners, said he was grateful to the first responders who deserve credit for helping to ensure no one was injured or died because of Sandy. He said the responsibility for the well-being of the community has now shifted to state and federal governments.

"We've never dealt with anything like this before," Simpkins said.

Gov. Martin O'Malley said he has been in communication with President Barack Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to coordinate federal resources for Marylanders affected by the storm. O'Malley highlighted the water rescue teams that came from as far away as South Carolina to assist residents.

The governor toured the region Wednesday, including a stop in Crisfield, where the center of commerce, the city dock, was damaged by the hurricane-force winds that swept across the waterfront community.

"We're going to work together, and we're going to rebuild Crisfield stronger than she was before," O'Malley said. "We dodged a cannonball. I know it's hard to take any comfort in that if you've been displaced from your home in Crisfield."

Paul Land, 53, ended up at the shelter Tuesday night after he tried to wait out the storm with his girlfriend, Karen Hoyt, 51, at his house on Calvary Road in Crisfield. Hoyt, a social worker, was visiting from Frederick County, and the couple bundled up under blankets and stocked up on sandwiches and fresh pineapple to wait out Sandy.

But when the water started rushing down the street in a fast-moving stream and the heat cut off with the loss of electricity, the couple flagged down a rescue crew in a Humvee for a ride.

"It was just getting colder, and the tide was coming back," said Land, who runs auxiliary services for Salisbury University.

Jewel Cruz and her fiance, Melvin Harris, heeded the warnings to evacuate Crisfield and spent Monday and Tuesday night at the completely booked Econo Lodge in Princess Anne, about 20 miles from their mobile home.

"It was really hard, the not knowing if you're going to have anything to come back home to," said Cruz, a 40-year-old assistant manager at Family Dollar. "We're very lucky. We feel bad for those who weren't so lucky."

Said Harris, "It's bad when people start losing things they worked their whole life for."

The couple's home was still standing when they returned Wednesday, but they found oil floating in the water surrounding their house and soggy insulation inside. Their children's' plastic swing set was stuck in the woods behind a neighbor's house.

Many along the bay leaned on their resiliency to guide them through recovery.

"We're survivors," said Gary Catlin, who wore rubber boots to wade through the water — at least six inches deep in some spots — outside his 19th-century house. Catlin, who works for Maryland Environmental Service, said he carefully remodeled the house with his own hands.

The water climbed his three outdoor steps and saturated his first floor. He estimated the damage between $35,000 and $50,000, but said his focus was on moving forward, not on what he lost.

"You're not going to change nature," he said. "We're guests here and what the Lord gives, we take."