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MD storm recovery slow

Bette Moore is afraid of heights.

BY HEATHER MOYER | MIDDLE RIVER, Md. | April 1, 2004


"The state is offering to buy the flood families the materials for home repairs if we provide the free labor."

—Rev. Norman Payne


Bette Moore is afraid of heights. Standing in front of her home that's just been elevated 11 feet off the ground, she said that's a fear she's going to have to work through.

"I think I'll get better about that now," she laughed, looking up at her house. "I can look on the bright side and tell you one thing my view has improved dramatically, I can see it all now!"

Moore is following a new insurance regulation for her area that requires any home being repaired or rebuilt to be elevated at least seven feet just slightly higher than the floodwaters were when the Hurricane Isabel hit the region last fall. Elevating her home gives Moore a discount on her flood insurance premium, and she added that her home will be lowered a foot or two once the foundation is constructed.

Moore, 70, lives right on Seneca Creek, which is not actually a creek but rather an inlet of the Chesapeake Bay. A construction firm helped her elevate her house last week, but not before a group of volunteers helped her remove the porch from the house. That alone saved her $5,000 in fees from the construction company.

"Fortunately, with the help of my church and the volunteers, I won't have to dip into my pension too much," said Moore.

Many Isabel survivors dealt with low insurance payouts a problem that's now being investigated by the head of the federal flood insurance program.

Moore had $40,000 in flood insurance coverage, yet only received slightly above $20,000 for her damage. Numerous complaints filed by flood families and pressure from state and local officials prompted the investigation.

In a move to help Isabel-affected families, Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich just signed a new bill called the Hurricane Isabel Disaster Relief Act. The act aims to "expand and augment the Department of Housing and Community Development's (DHCD) existing housing and loan guarantees."

Relief moves slowly in disasters, and those affected by Hurricane Isabel are seeing no different. Interfaith organizations along with state, federal and local agencies are working together to focus on long-term recovery.

The Maryland Interfaith Recovery Team (MIRT) is moving toward a full roster of member-organizations itself, but that doesn't mean MIRT chair Rev. Norman Payne hasn't seen plenty of interest in their assistance.

"We got about 1,500 responses since FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) closed their application deadline," said Payne, a retired Lutheran pastor. "Some responses are serious, some aren't, but most are people who are really in bad straits."

Payne said those who are in bad situations have only had those exacerbated by all the insurance problems. "Many people are only getting about one-half of what they need from (insurance companies)," said Payne.

He added that his organization is waiting to act on its own monetary assistance to flood families until the insurance investigation is done. Payne said MIRT is also now referring people to the newly expanded resources of the state.

And speaking of newly expanded state resources, Payne said his connections are now paying off in the form of home repairs. His wife used to work for the Maryland DHCD. Just last week he received a call from someone in that office who knows about his and MIRT's work. "The state is offering to buy the flood families the materials for home repairs if we provide the free labor," said Payne. "They want to start this within 30 days and we already have volunteers lined up to help with the repairs."

Yet not all resources are rolling in, so MIRT is asking. With the help of the FEMA Voluntary Agency Liaison (VAL) Betty Shumate, Payne mailed out fundraising letters last week asking national church denomination offices for funds and for their presence in MIRT.

"(The DHCD plan) is extremely good news," said Shumate. "But there are still a lot of people in need out here we need resources for the long-term recovery."

Shumate said another challenge is having only one interfaith recovery team for the entire western shore of Maryland. She said that makes travel to MIRT meetings in Baltimore hard for those who live on the outskirts of the region.

Another challenge? MIRT is brand new. The region has never had another interfaith recovery team in the past something that points to Maryland's low disaster count.

"We've really had no disasters warranting the creation of an interfaith before," said Payne. "That makes it very hard to get interest in forming one until a disaster happens. I think it might take a few more disasters to get people really into the idea and that's unfortunate."

Church World Service (CWS) provided interfaith training and assistance by being on-site immediately after the hurricane. CWS Disaster Resource and Recovery Liaison Joann Hale continues to offer assistance to Payne through numerous phone conversations.

Although the lack of an organized interfaith doesn't mean that the local government and local churches haven't helped in their own ways.

"Baltimore County did a wonderful job they brought out a fleet of their dump trucks to various regions for cleanup," said Payne. "There were constant streams of them going in and out of Bowleys Quarters and Edgemere, which were both hit very hard by Isabel." Payne said the dump trucks are still doing weekend pick-ups.

Local churches are still offering meals to people and sorting donations. "Churches across the region have really stepped up to help," said Payne.

Referring to the fact that insurance companies make claimants wait for investigators to assess the damaged homes, Payne said MIRT's help is moving slowly. He said interfaiths have to wait to act until survivors ask or don't ask for government help.

"We really did, and do, have to wait until the government acts," he said. "It's awful that it moves so slowly because so many people need help. But you don't want to shoot yourself in the foot by helping too soon."

Until insurance claims are reviewed, Payne said he does what he can. "I'm learning to be patient," he laughed. "But that doesn't mean I like it."


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