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MD islanders struggle

A piece of white picket fence leans against the guardrail to the road leading north out of Hoopersville, a tiny Eastern Shore community located on Lower Hooper Island, down in the southern reaches of Maryland's marshy Dorchester County.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | HOOPER ISLAND, Md. | September 26, 2003

"Everyone's out of work, and no one has any money."

—Rev. Patrick Kelly

A piece of white picket fence leans against the guardrail to the road leading north out of Hoopersville, a tiny Eastern Shore community located on Lower Hooper Island, down in the southern reaches of Maryland's marshy Dorchester County.

The fencing is just part of the wreckage that litters the causeway leading to Hooper Island proper a buckled, beat-up bridge that got slammed by Hurricane Isabel. The road didn't reopen until two days after the hurricane hit, and even now driving over it is a slow, delicate process.

That piece of fence beside the causeway once belonged to John Blake, who lives about a quarter of a mile to the south.

Blake, along with his wife Cathy, and their five kids, has lived here for eight years, after a move from their native Edgewater, over on the other side of the Chesapeake Bay.

In their eight years they have seen plenty of high tides wash into their yard. But they have never seen anything like what happened during Hurricane Isabel.

Apparently neither has anyone on Hoopers Island. Blake said that his home, which was built in the 19th century, never incurred flood damage on the first floor until now. And Isabel's storm surge didn't just wash in a few inches of saltwater the water line in Blake's living room stands at higher than two and a half feet.

That's an accomplishment that neither Hurricane Hazel nor the Chesapeake-Potomac Hurricane of 1933 was able to achieve.

The result has been devastating for the Blake family. Practically everything on the first floor was ruined, except the computers and televisions they moved to the second floor.

While the Blakes had standard homeowners insurance, they were not covered for flooding. This extra insurance Cathy Blake said costs $1,900 a year above what they already pay and that price is way too steep for them.

"There's no way we can afford that," she said.

The Blakes originally planned to tough out the storm, but their seven-year-old daughter convinced them otherwise.

"Mom, I'm scared. When are we leaving?" she asked them.

"She had her bags packed and everything," John Blake said. "She had her toys packed too."

So the rest of the family starting packing up, and the seven of them got out just one hour before the Chesapeake Bay swallowed up the causeway.

After spending the weekend with relatives in Edgewater, they returned last Sunday to find their home still standing, but much of the first floor ruined. They've worked from dawn until dusk every day since then to clean up the mess. Their whole front yard is filled with soggy couches and moldy furniture.

The Blakes credited The Salvation Army and the Dorchester County Sheriff's Department for providing them much needed help.

They also were especially thankful to "the preacher dude" the Rev. Joseph Kelly, pastor of the Hosier United Methodist Church on Hoopers Island.

Kelly brought them a dehumidifier and helped them get fresh water and food.

The Blakes were particularly grateful for the dehumidifier, since Cathy Blake suffers from a mold ailment she believes she contracted at her workplace in Cambridge. Now that their home has been converted into a giant mold incubator, they're glad to start drying out the house, while they spend all day scrubbing the floors and walls with bleach.

But these are just temporary measures, John Blake said.

"I just got to gut the house," he said. "I got no choice."

The Blakes are just one of hundreds of families who suffered at the hands of Isabel, and Kelly, who just started his appointment in July, is trying his best to minister to all of them.

Kelly estimates that the Blakes' situation is not unique. He figures that 95 percent of the structures on Hoopers Island were affected in some way by flooding, and that more than half of the owners lacked flood insurance.

Then there's the fact that everyone is out of work. There are the dozens of migrant workers on the island, who work in the crabbing industry, don't speak English, and are undocumented.

"Everyone's out of work, and no one has any money," Kelly said. "There's just an incredible financial crunch."

In the short term, Kelly is using his church as a distribution center for bottled water, food, cleaning kits and other necessities.

"These people are proud people," he said. "If I walked up to give them (assistance), they wouldn't take it. But if I put it in a central location, where they can come and get it, then they'll take it."

All afternoon, residents pulled up their pickups trucks outside the church and loaded up with whatever they needed.

Chris Windsor is one resident who stopped by the church to collect water, snacks, and cleaning kits.

Pointing to a bucket containing Salvation Army cleaning kits, Windor said, "I've been through three of those already."

"Nobody down here has flood insurance," Windsor said. "I guess they figured if they survived Hazel they'd survive this one too. I don't think that they thought this would be so bad."

Kelly is certain that long-term recovery is going to take a long time. Towards that end, Kelly expected the arrival of representatives from the United Methodist Committee on Relief by this Friday.

"It's going to take months," he said, "and it's going to take money."

Already the cash is coming in, including a $10,000 check Kelly received from a pastor friend of his, and a bag of cash from another pastor.

In the meantime, the residents of Hoopers Island are doing what they can to help each other. Bad off as the Blakes may be, they know that their 19-year-old babysitter, who lives just down the road, is in even worse shape. Her trailer was totaled by the storm. Now the girl is staying with the Blakes.

"The folks here used to be some hard-nosed people," Blake said, "but they got the fear of God in them now."

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