‘They want somebody to care'

On Thursday afternoon when Hurricane Isabel's long fingertips began to brush her house with wind and rain, Shelly Marzocchi wasn't worried.

BY SUSAN KIM | FORT HOWARD, Md. | September 22, 2003

"I moved here in 1962 and I've never had floodwater in my house until now."

—Harry Mapp

On Thursday afternoon when Hurricane Isabel's long fingertips began to brush her house with wind and rain, Shelly Marzocchi wasn't worried.

This community is notoriously vulnerable to flooding – Fort Howard sits just off the Chesapeake Bay on the Patapsco River, in southeastern Baltimore County. So Marzocchi had seen flooding before: "I live on the water. My husband's grandmother owned this house. I'm used to flooding. So I wasn't really concerned."

At 10:30 that night, she had to move her cars to higher ground.

By 11:30, the water, she said, "was rolling in high."

But it had been that high in 1999. She stayed put with her two teenage sons.

Then after midnight came a high tide and a storm surge like nothing she'd ever seen before. The river rose two feet in less than two hours, and it covered her kitchen floor in a matter of minutes. "My oldest son said, 'we're getting out of here.' "

At 1 a.m., Marzocchi and her boys walk in waist-deep water to her mother-in-law's house, next door but on higher ground. "The wind was just whipping. There were 4-foot waves breaking and rolling in," she said.

From there she watched the water cover her window boxes. The family huddled on the second floor of her mother-in-law's house, where the water busted through the plywood they put up to keep it back, and broke the sliding glass door on the first level.

The water overturned lawnmowers, tractors and gas cans throughout the neighborhood, and soon the gasoline fumes were so strong they had to open the windows. They rode out the storm that way until 6 a.m. Friday morning, listening to debris banging against the house, and at one point hearing an oil tank explode near an apartment building across the river.

On Monday Marzocchi could hardly tell her story without tears starting in her eyes. "I lost two furnaces, two air conditioners, duct work, all kinds of appliances like mixers and blenders," she said.

She had flood insurance. But that can't replace the family photos and documents she lost – her children's birth certificates, their baptism certificate, her marriage certificate. She was trying to dry them in the sun.

She worries about where they will live while the house is being repaired, she said, and about when her boys will be able to go back to school. Schools in Baltimore County were still closed Monday.

"And this sheet rock and insulation are ruined," she said. "I'm worried it will grow mold and fungus and my children have allergy problems now."

Hurricane Isabel also pushed water into homes that had never seen flooding.

In Edgemere, another neighborhood in southeastern Baltimore County, the Back River washed into Harry Mapp's home, first pushing raw sewage into the basement and inundating the rest of his house. "I moved here in 1962 and I've never had floodwater in my house until now," he said. "I didn't have flood insurance."

To make matters worse, a tree fell onto his one-month-old truck, totaling it.

Across the street, Ida Lou Hudler was looking at her 98-year-old mother's house. The front yard was a knee-deep mud pit. Ruined belongings spilled out the front door, where they were drying in the sun. An oil tank and a propane tank sat propped against the house where the river washed them.

And another half inch of rain was forecast for Monday night into Tuesday.

"My mother didn't have flood insurance either," said Hudler to Harry Mapp as neighbors gathered to comfort each other while power repair trucks, eager construction contractors and fire trucks canvassed the area.

"Plus, flood insurance runs about $800 a year around here," chimed in another neighbor.

They couldn't afford it and they never thought they'd need it, they agreed.

What people in southeastern Baltimore County need most right now is for people to care about them, said the Rev. Laurie Gates-Wood, pastor at Lodge Forest United Methodist Church.

And that's just what Gates-Wood is doing, starting with her church members and brimming over into the rest of the community.

The flood survivors tell her their stories, and she prays with them and for them.

She was praying Friday morning, in the wee hours when Isabel was at its worst, knowing her community was in trouble. "I knew there were problems when the sirens started. Then there were helicopters. You knew people were in trouble and there was nothing you could do. There was a fire truck going by every two minutes."

Gates-Wood called every person in her 200-member congregation she knew who lived in the waterfront. Since that night, she's been visiting the hardest hit.

And she's still getting around to them all. And worrying about them all. "There is a family who was very poor - they didn't even have running water - and their house was destroyed. I don't know what happened to them."

People in these neighborhoods, she said, aren't just vulnerable to being the "forgotten" flood survivors. For years, she said, they've felt forgotten in other ways.

"Edgemere was originally a steel town," she explained. Then Bethlehem Steel gradually scaled its employment there back from 30,000 people to just 3,000. Then Bethlehem Steel was sold to International Steel Group.

What's left is a mixed community, she said, with older people who have retired from the steel company, and younger people who grew up in the area, or who have newly discovered the waterfront.

And the hurricane brought Gates-Wood her own problems. Raw sewage washed into the basement of the parsonage where she lives with her husband. This is the fifth time this has happened since last fall, she said, and it happens to a lot of people around here, too.

"People feel like they're forgotten. They've felt that way for years. They just want to know somebody cares. To me, that's the bottom line in ministry. It's that you love people."

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