“Crabby” Community gets help

Mennonite Disaster Service helps Chesapeake Bay town recover

BY EMILY WILL | Crisfield, MD. | March 22, 2013

"It’s the poorest area in Maryland’s poorest county"

—Phillip Huber

Hazel Cropper, 74, is the world’s fastest crab picker. For years she’s pitted her nimble fingers against those of locals and outsiders in the National Hard Crab Derby, held annually in this Chesapeake Bay-side town. Several times she’s made and broken her own record speeds for extracting meat from steamed blue crabs.

Cropper hesitates, however, when asked if she’ll defend her title in the 2013 Labor Day contest, saying it depends on what God has in store for her. Since Hurricane Sandy blasted the town last October 29, little about the future seems certain.

Cropper’s two-story house, like most other Crisfield buildings, weathered major storms in the past—Hurricane Gloria in 1983, Isabel in 2003, Fred in 2009 and Irene in 2011, to name some of them.

Crisfield residents say Sandy was different. Its shifting cyclonic wind brought swift tide surges from all sides of the peninsula and inundated homes that had never before flooded, among them Cropper’s.

The first floor of Cropper’s flooded home had to be gutted, after which Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) workers helped mend it over a six-week period. From March 11 to 15, volunteers from Metzler’s Mennonite Church in Lancaster County completed the work.

They replaced flooring and laid tiles in the bathroom and installed kitchen cabinets and baseboard.

Cropper can now move back into the home she’s owned since 1974, the home in which she and her husband raised five children.

MDS is working alongside other Christian and nonprofit groups in Crisfield in recovery efforts coordinated by Maryland’s Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD).

Lutheran minister Phillip Huber, vice chair of Maryland VOAD, said the organization is focusing recovery efforts on Crisfield because of the town’s “disproportionately large number of people in poverty.”

“It’s the poorest area in Maryland’s poorest county,” he said.

Huber estimates VOAD member organizations, along with state, county and city agencies, will restore 350 houses in Crisfield and lower Somerset County, 100 of them new builds.

Huber said he requested help from MDS because many MDS volunteers have expertise in the building trades and comfortably fill the reconstruction niche in disaster recovery efforts.

Even with the help, however, uncertainty about the future reigns in this maritime town, which was built on oystering—in some parts literally. In the early 1900s, city fathers used oyster shells to fill salt marshes to provide a foundation for a downtown.

In its heyday, Crisfield’s population rose to 24,000. In 1904, it was Maryland’s second largest city, after Baltimore. Today it has 2,700 inhabitants.

After oysters succumbed to overfishing and disease in the 1920s, blue crabs replaced them as the area’s cash crop.

Crisfield thrived on crabbing until pollution and overharvesting took their toll in the early 1990s. No major economic activity replaced shellfish, and Crisfield struggles to survive. Although oyster and crab populations are reviving, few people can make a livelihood solely on the water.

Residents with skills and education seek employment elsewhere. Many relocate to Salisbury, a city of 30,000 some 35 miles northeast, and to other places.

Those who leave Crisfield leave behind the neediest and most vulnerable, including the elderly.

“Ninety-some percent are unemployed,” said Ken Wermuth, a contractor from Glen Allen, VA, who has been serving as MDS Crisfield project manager since mid-January.

Locating a site to house 15 to 20 volunteers tops Wermuth’s to-do list, no easy task in a place that has just lost a fifth of its already diminished housing stock. Wermuth anticipates that MDS will spend a year in Crisfield, until mid-January 2014.

Despite its challenges, Wermuth has good vibes about Crisfield and its “good-old-days” small-town feel. He nicknames it “Mayberry,” after the fictional Andy Griffith Show community in which everyone knows everyone else—and everyone else’s business.

Everyone here certainly knows that Hazel Cropper reigns supreme in the crab-picking community and can recount the drama of the 2012 contest in which she and another contestant tied for an all-time record-breaker, each harvesting just over 5 pounds of meat from steamed crabs in 15 minutes. It came down to a five-minute tie-breaker.

Cropper kept her title.

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