In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, a devastated town is left to pick up the pieces on their own after the federal government denied much-needed financial assistance
Though points to the north seemed to get all the national headlines in the wake of an event that some pundits claim helped secure the outcome of a presidential election, the fact is that Superstorm Sandy’s devastation extended far beyond the borders of the Northeast. Just ask anyone who lives in Crisfield, which suffered Sandy’s wrath with a level of intensity seen by few other regions on the East Coast. And though the traditionally proud and rough-hewn people of Crisfield will no doubt find a way to pick up the scattered pieces of their lives, there’s a good chance they may never be quite the same.
“In less than an hour — maybe even a half-hour — our house and property went from being bone-dry to being partially under water,” shared Deneene Holland, who used to reside on South Somerset Avenue in Crisfield with her husband, Jamie Holland, and their sons Jacob and William.
Their house had been an 1,800 sq. ft. two-level Cape Cod that was built in the 1800s, one that had seen four generations of Jamie’s family born and raised in it. The home was practically as ingrained in the Holland family as their own DNA, and nothing would ever separate them… so they thought. That was before a five-foot wall of water from the Chesapeake Bay swept in during high tide, around noon, to claim the home for itself, summarily evicting the family that had occupied it for more than a century in the virtual blink of an eye.
“It felt like we only had seconds to grab what we could from the first level and get it upstairs before it was either destroyed or carried away by the tidal water,” Deneene recalled. “It was no time before the water was six to eight inches high in the house. We knew we couldn’t remain there much longer.”
They were right about that. The Hollands left everything behind and fled their home; fortunately, they were rescued by a relative who owns a high-clearance Army-surplus vehicle, though just getting to it was a challenge.
“The water was so high, and the current was so strong,” Deneene said, “that we had to put 6-year-old William on my husband’s shoulders so that he wouldn’t be carried away by it.” Sadly, it was a fate that claimed the family’s cat, which was swept away by the deluge and never seen again.
“We just don’t get that kind of water,” City Inspector Noah Bradshaw said in November. “We get rising tide, but in the 140 years of history of Crisfield … we’ve never had water that deep.”
Once aboard the Army truck, the Hollands made their way to higher ground, to Jed’s Auto Refinishing, where the land was still dry. And though their salvation lay just five miles down the road, it was that trek that Deneene said was the scariest part of all.
“Even with that big truck, the water still came up so high,” said Deneene, who works as an aesthetician for Anew MedSpa in West Ocean City. “We had to go really, really slow in order to be safe, even though it seemed like we were going to tip over many times, between the tidal water and the incredible wind velocity. Trees and power lines were falling down all over; people were being evacuated in boats… and I’ll never forget the sound of the town’s fire siren, which apparently got stuck at one pitch and just kept blaring, blaring, blaring continuously. That five-mile ride to Jed’s was without a doubt the closest I’ve ever been to hell on earth. Not to be melodramatic, but it kinda seemed at the time like the world was coming to an end.”
By the time the truck had finally arrived at Jed’s, there were a full 20 evacuees aboard, neighbors in the rural bayside community helping each other the best they could despite being caught in the throes of a cataclysm. In the weeks to follow, the Hollands would rely on the hospitality of relatives to give them shelter as they went about the business of stitching the tatters of their lives back together.
Even one month later, Crisfield and its people have yet to recover. The streets remain lined with the gutted shells of homes and piles of moldy junk that not long ago had been the evidence of people’s lives. Looking around, Crisfield resembles a ghost town. The only flourish of color amid the pervasive drabs of gray are the Day-Glo pink “Condemned” signs that mark what used to be homes as if they were they were tombstones marking graves. The pall of quiet despair and relentless uncertainty hangs thick in the air like a toxic cloud, bolstered by a menacing ocean of mold that permeates the town like a plague.
In all, some 300 homes were flooded, spilling as many as 500 Somerset County residents into the shelter at Washington High School in Princess Anne. Docks were destroyed; businesses were smashed. Sandy even blew the roof off police headquarters before she was done.
“We’re going to rebuild Crisfield stronger than she was before,” was the rallying cry heard from Governor Martin O’Malley on Nov. 1 from the badly damaged City Dock in Crisfield.
Local officials, reporters and citizens looked on in the hopes that the people of the beleaguered town might have some good news in the offing. But more than a month later, it seems the prevailing sentiment among the residents is one of abandonment by state and federal government rather than support. Part of that no doubt stems from the fact that on Dec. 3 the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced they had declined the request to provide federal aid for Somerset County.
“This decision will make it more difficult for hard-hit residents of the Eastern Shore to recover from the destruction caused by Superstorm Sandy,” said Governor O’Malley. “State agencies will continue to work with local officials to try to help local residents, but the federal programs would have provided the best assistance.”
“We will appeal this decision,” said Maryland Emergency Management Agency Director Ken Mallette. “While state agencies and volunteer groups have done their best to assist local residents, many residents have needs that go beyond the scope of those programs.”
Maryland had sought individual assistance as part of the requested presidential disaster declaration for Dorchester, Somerset and Worcester Counties. President Obama had approved the request for public assistance (which reimburses state and local government agencies for damages and costs related to the storm) for 17 counties and Baltimore City on Nov. 20 but had deferred a decision on the individual-assistance request for the three Eastern Shore counties.
“All of us here are really disappointed with FEMA and the state response to our situation,” Deneene said as Jamie nodded his adament confirmation over her shoulder. “I’d heard before that we’re not their constituency and that they don’t really care about us down here; now I’m beginning to see what they’re talking about.
“But Crisfielders are a resourceful and self-reliant people,” she continued. “We have our own local heroes. People like Billie Jo Chandler, who did an amazing job helping to coordinate the relief effort for the flooded homeowners. She’s spent countless hours working with John Phoebus to help bring relief to the victims. We’re also thankful for the work of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, which got down here right away to help the people in need.”
The Hollands have begun the painstaking process of rebuilding their home on South Somerset Avenue. The project will take months, and they’ve had to substantially deplete their savings as well as Jamie’s 401K from Food Lion, where he works as a market manager.
Mayor P.J. Purnell has stated publicly that without the proper relief effort, Crisfield may ultimately lose up to one-third of its population.
To show your support for the people of Crisfield, visit www.CrisfieldRecovery.org or call John Phoebus at 410-968-9200.
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