CRISFIELD – Nearly a month ago, Superstorm Sandy sent flood waters washing through Teresa Shallcross’ home in this little city on the edge of the Chesapeake Bay. Her home of 20 years is uninhabitable because her furnace is slowly falling through her water-damaged floor.
She’s watched her neighbors and out-of-town volunteers band together to rebuild the hundreds of homes like hers damaged by 100 mph winds and rising flood water. But she’s still waiting for the federal government to join in the effort.
“What, because we are a town of only 2,500 people, we don’t matter?” Shallcross asked.*
In Crisfield, hundreds of residents were displaced after the storm ravaged the East Coast and covered the city in three feet of water. But they’re still waiting to hear whether the Federal Emergency Management Agency will help them rebuild their flooded homes and businesses.
“It has been a nightmare. 300 houses were flooded. Another 200 houses that had water in their houses, garages, basements,” said Crisfield’s Mayor, P.J. Purnell.
Immediately after Sandy hit, federal emergency personnel and Maryland National Guard troops went door-to-door to help Crisfield residents who were trapped by the waters. They left within 72 hours.
Since then, the citizens of Crisfield and the state government have tried to get the federal government’s attention to help volunteers and state agencies to repair the damage.
Last week, FEMA declared that Somerset County (home of Crisfield) and 17 other Maryland jurisdictions will receive public assistance to rebuild public property damaged by the storm. The declaration will cover about 75 percent of the cost to rebuild things like roads and government buildings.
But Crisfield residents are still waiting for President Obama to expand the disaster declaration to help families rebuild damaged homes and business. Gov. Martin O’Malley and other state officials have petitioned the White House to take that step.
Mike Wade, a FEMA spokesperson, said he did not know when — or even if — Obama would expand the disaster declaration to cover individual damages.
“The government should have this set up,” said Billie Jo Chandler, a Crisfield pizzeria owner. “We need three paid workers to help us with relief efforts. We need 10 but I’ll be happy with three.”
Instead of sitting around waiting for help, scores of volunteers are helping residents who have been displaced by the water damage.
The volunteers crews are going house to house, tearing up floors, ripping wet insulation from the walls and trying to remove the mold that is spreading through at least 200 houses. From a trailer at Somers Cove Marina—the volunteers’ headquarters– residents are putting in fewer hours at work to help out. Families help in every way they can.
“You put the children into bed and then you make more phone calls,” said Charlotte Wilson, the volunteer operation coordinator. “There is a lot to do. It would take us at least a year to get back to normal.”
The houses look normal on the outside, but the problem is inside. The salty water from the storm surge damaged heating systems and destroyed people’s personal belongings. The volunteers’ biggest concern is getting rid of the mold.
“It’s going to make them sick. A lot of people don’t want to leave their houses (for the crews to clean up),” Wilson said. “They say they would do it themselves but the mold is behind the walls. It’s just going to rise.”
Most of the displaced residents are living with relatives in Salisbury and other parts of Somerset County. For children, commuting to school takes hours. Some families were set up in motels or transitional housing provided by the state’s housing department.
Purnell worried that the storm’s destruction would affect the future of the city. Residents who lost their houses may never come back, he said. The flood also hurt small businesses that were already struggling to keep up, he said.
Crisfield, the southernmost city in Maryland, is known for its blue crabs, oysters and a quiet community life centered on the water. They are used to the tides. The old houses resting on top of concrete blocks have endured hurricanes before, but Sandy’s destruction caught them by surprise.
Many faith-based organizations have joined the volunteers’ recovery efforts. After the disaster, nearly all of the city’s 17 churches organized to provide for the displaced.
Emmanuel Church runs a food pantry and provides hot meals every day. If residents need to replace their clothes, they can go to the Church of God where piles of clothes donated from Baltimore, Delaware and other surrounding areas are neatly organized.
When the federal government left after the initial rescue efforts, volunteers from several states came in to help Crisfield’s residents to rebuild their homes.
A crew of about 150 extra volunteers comes on weekends from as far as Baltimore and Annapolis to help with the relief efforts. And groups of people from Virginia Beach offered to rebuild some houses for free.
The volunteer crews can only help salvage the homes of residents who do not have insurance to cover the reconstruction.
Volunteers said that many residents are fighting with their insurance companies to get help. Some companies argue that the flood insurance policies do not cover the damage because it was caused by tidal water, residents said. However, according to FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program, overflow of tidal waters is considered flooding.
“We need the insurance to do what they are suppose to do and help us. I’ve got about $110,000 worth of insurance on my home and they are not doing anything,” Shallcross said.
Like many homeowners, Shallcross, is fighting with her company to cover flood damages. Her insurance company could not be reached for comment.
“We did not ask for help from the churches before because we wanted them to help those who could use it,” said Amanda Beckley, Shallcross’ daughter. “We didn’t know the insurance would do this to us.”
Wilson said that more and more people have been forced to leave their damaged houses but there is no place for them to stay.
“We have two hotels here in town and they are full. If they contact MEMA (the Maryland Emergency Management Agency), they could be able to have housing assistance for 90 days,” Wilson said. “After that, they would need to find another place, probably out of town.”
But the silver lining, Wilson said, is that the city and other parts of the Eastern Shore united to help their neighbors.
“The community is banding together to rebuild in this time of crisis,” she said.
*CORRECTION: The story mistakenly quoted Teresa Shallcross saying that Crisfield was a town of 25,000 people. According to Census data, the city has a population of approximately 2,700.