Small town swamped by Floyd

BY SUSAN KIM | NORTH EAST, Md. | September 21, 1999

NORTH EAST, Md. (Sept. 21, 1999) -- The very first house and yard off of Catherine Street has been in Dorothea Gatchell's family since 1850. But as of last week -- when Hurricane Floyd raked the eastern U.S. -- Catherine Street isn't here anymore.

Flash floodwaters, bringing a huge swath of rubble and mud, gouged a four-foot deep gully where the road once stood and washed away a portion of the house's foundation. Gatchell and her daughter spent Sunday hauling stones from the rubble pile into a wheelbarrow and using them to buttress the home.

Hurricane Floyd's torrential rains overflowed the North East River, flooding scores of homes and businesses in this town of 2,600. "Floodwater seeped in everywhere it could on this street," said Gatchell. "Even people who live off of tiny streams had six feet of water in their houses."

Gatchell still considers her family lucky, though. Her 20-year-old grandson stepped into the rapidly-flowing water, thinking the road was still underneath. "The current just flipped him end-over-end," she said. "He grabbed a tree and managed to get out with just a few scratches."

Even long-time residents can't remember the last time it has flooded in this town. "I've lived here for 71 years, and I've been a fireman here for 43 of those years, and I've never seen water like this," said James Ewing, who helped house some 80 evacuees in the North East Fire Company, which served as an American Red Cross shelter.

Because flooding is so rare in this area, few people had flood insurance, said the Rev. Boyd Etter, pastor at the North East United Methodist Church. "One family I talked to was able to salvage only the items on their kitchen table because it floated up to the surface," he said. "The biggest challenges will be simply trying to clean up, then coping with the larger economic loss."

With a median average household income of about $26,000 this blue-collar town is home to many self-employed mechanics and small farmers. Some 40 homes have flood damage. "A lot of places not in the flood plain were flooded," said Quentin Banks, spokesperson for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency. "So a lot of people probably didn't have flood insurance."

Fortunately, many displaced people are able to stay with family living in the area, but Etter predicts there will be a significant amount of unmet need. The North East Ministerial Association will meet Wednesday to plan the churches' role in helping their town recover. "This will be a significant challenge for the faith community," Etter said.

North East has become increasingly popular as a resort community, he added. The town's marinas were able to batten down early, remove many boats from the water altogether, and avoid major damage. In nearby Elkton, workers set up barricades near areas near Big Elk that tend to flood. But in North East, residents had no such precedent.

"This was an isolated occurrence. The rainfall was forecast but nobody could really know the effects it would have," he added. The hurricane dumped up to 12 inches of rain in parts of Cecil County.

For two days after the storm, the fire department pumped out people's basements. Firefighter Terri Hamilton said she was impressed at the way the community has pulled together. "In the fire hall, we had dogs and cats in one section, and the evacuees in another. Some people needed hospital beds and oxygen, and the Red Cross was able to provide that, and the Ladies Auxiliary cooked," she said.

Fellow firefighter Dave Husfelt said everyone seemed to be willing to help their neighbors the night the town flooded. "A lot of firefighters had their own places flooded and they were out helping others," he said.

"We had one firefighter call in and ask us to shut his gate. His family had been evacuated but when he drove by his house, he saw his kid's toys flying out into the street," added Hamilton.

The entire northern end of town was inundated with water, and the Maryland State Highway Administration had to sandbag an electric substation in the town to protect it from the water. The local Cecil Whig newspaper missed a day of distribution for the first time in recent history. When the Friday's paper was delivered on Saturday, residents bought multiple copies to keep as a reminder of the great flood of '99.

The waters receded as quickly as they rose. Now the bridges leading into town are repaired and most basements have been pumped. But recovery in North East will likely be a long-term process. Damaged streets, washed-out concrete bulkhead, downed trees, homes full of mud, and ruined possessions are only part of the loss.

Gatchell, looking across the swath of rubble marked with yellow caution tape, said she remembers when her grandparents planted a thousand sweet potatoes there, and when her relatives would walk several miles to and from the Methodist chapel. And, where the water cut its gorge, she can see remnants of the brick walk she remembers as a girl. A back hoe will fill on the gorge tomorrow to begin the process of rebuilding the road.

"There must be a ton of stone in this yard. But these are only material things we've lost," she added. "We're lucky nobody lost their lives here."

Not all were so fortunate. In nearby Delaware, two girls were swept away in storm drains near Dragon Creek. In North Carolina, more than 20 deaths have been attributed to the storm.

Posted Sept. 21, 1999

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