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MD neighbors stick together

Stop by St. Matthew's Lutheran Church on Tuesday or Thursday night, and you'll hear plenty of laughter.


"I think the reality is just setting in for many people."

—Betty Shumate

Stop by St. Matthew's Lutheran Church in Bowleys Quarters on any Tuesday or Thursday night, and you'll hear plenty of conversation and laughter. That's when they hold their Isabel Neighbor Nights, an event organized right after Hurricane Isabel severely damaged the community last September.

At this past Tuesday night's dinner, spirits were high as those gathered helped celebrate Michele Kehl's birthday.

Kehl has a special place in the community's heart. "Michelle is a blessing," said local resident Mel Bauernfeind. "She jumped right in to help everyone, and she's been a tremendous help this whole time. There's not enough thanks for what she's done."

Kehl first felt Hurricane Isabel's effects as a resident of Bowleys Quarters. Now she's also feeling the effects through her work as volunteer coordinator for Isabel Recovery, part of the Baltimore County Volunteers office.

Her neighborhood, situated right on the water, was mostly wiped out by the storm surge from Isabel. Only her home and a few others went untouched. Kehl said she started her work as an Isabel relief worker that night, letting other neighbors whose homes were flooded stay with her family.

Since then, she's worked tirelessly to help her community. "I think I've had two days off in the past 203 or so," she laughed, adding, "I need to get a life."

Six months after Hurricane Isabel hit, flood survivors are still dealing with tough emotions. Some say the emotions now might even be worse than those felt directly after the storm.

"I think the reality is just setting in for many people," said Betty Shumate, a Voluntary Agency Liaison (VAL) for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). "The emotions and depression are here now."

Shumate is the VAL assigned to the Mid-Atlantic Region, with her office set up in the Middle River area east of Baltimore next to Bowleys Quarters.

Kehl agreed. "It's almost harder now than it was," she said. "Living in the community, it's hard to get away from it all even when you do physically leave the area. It has gotten better, but it's been a long emotional road."

High emotions can also cause physical problems, which Kehl has seen hit close to home. She said there were four heart attacks on her street alone right after Christmas.

She noted a local church's recent prayer service. "During the quiet part where people name off recent deaths, I sat there overwhelmed by how many of the names I knew," she said. "And also during that silence you hear all the coughing around the room, that's caused by all the mold people are living with."

The emotions and bonding time are two reasons why the Isabel Neighbor Nights at St. Matthew's are so important to the community.

Audrey Bergin, a crisis counselor for Isabel Outreach, is present at every dinner so she can chat with the "flood buds and flood families" as Kehl refers to everyone. Bergin said not everyone talked to her at first, but time helped.

"The nature of disasters is to stress people," she said. "People here were apprehensive at first because my help isn't necessarily tangible."

She said she educates people on the effects of stress and how to know when they should get more help. Kehl helps her keep tabs on who might need some extra counseling.

Kids get time as well. "Sometimes the kids will come to me, and then sometimes I talk to them about what their parents are experiencing," said Bergin. "Isabel Outreach has also gone to local schools."

Kehl said the Isabel Neighbor Nights offer a way for everyone to keep in touch and help each other, and its effects are noticeable. "People at this dinner now are so different than they were three months ago," she said. "Before, they had their heads down and were fairly quiet. Now they talk and welcome each other and take good care of any newcomers."

She added that Dottie Coppell, lead organizer at St. Matthew's, brought in a massage therapist last week, which everyone loved. "Coppell is also bringing in a bereavement and stress expert here in another two weeks," Kehl said.

The flood families are appreciative of the work the people of St. Matthew's Lutheran Church do. The church provided lunch and dinner for the residents of Bowleys Quarters seven days a week for a long period of time after the hurricane.

"It's fantastic what St. Matt's has done and I hope that all this goodness will be rewarded to them," said Lucille Stricker, a regular neighbor night attendee. "They've been a godsend to us. We've all had our ups and downs, but they're still here with us and that means a lot."

Mel Bauernfeind lost his home in the flooding, but said the dinners have had a major impact on his outlook and his 'look.' "Two weeks after the hurricane I had lost 15 pounds but since then I've gained 25!" he said with a laugh.

"The way the community came together is amazing," Bauernfeind continued. "We stuck together and never gave up."

Kehl's effort to keep the area working together never ceases. Kehl, serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA, assisted a coalition of community agencies in holding eight cleanups in the past two months. Those cleanups removed over 300 tons of storm debris. Another cleanup is scheduled for this Saturday.

Tuesday afternoon she helped lead a group of 12 area pastors on a tour of the remaining damage in Bowleys Quarters. She also showed the group the supply trailer, which was stocked with everything from shampoo to dog food.

"Everyone is still in need of the basic things you don't think about, like toothpaste," said tour member Rev. David Deans of Back River United Methodist Church in nearby Essex. Isabel devastated Deans' community as well.

Rev. Jack Bussard, pastor of Cowenton United Methodist Church and District Coordinator of Disasters for the United Methodist Church, said he wants people to know that so much help is still needed.

He gave an example of a local woman who is 65-years-old. "This woman was retired, and she told me the other day that she will have to go back to work because she spent every last dime fixing her home - and it's still not totally done," Bussard told the group of pastors.

At the dinner later that night, some flood families also focused their thoughts on broader ideas. Bauernfeind wants people everywhere to learn from this disaster. "I think the biggest thing is what about the next time?" he said. "Whether it's here or somewhere else in the U.S. people should be ready."

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