2 Years After Isabel, a Fitful Recovery
Families in Arundel Neighborhood Battle Debt, Red Tape

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 18, 2005

The floodwaters that turned side streets into rivers have long since receded. Many homes, damaged beyond repair, have been torn down and replaced. Today a drive through Cedarhurst on the Bay reveals few clues that it was devastated two years ago by Hurricane Isabel.

Still, there are signs, hidden and obvious, that the struggle to recover continues. A few residents of the Anne Arundel County neighborhood on the Chesapeake Bay are still living a miserable existence in cramped government trailers -- and soon may be evicted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Some continue to fight over flood insurance and argue with local officials over loans and building permits. Others have started over in new homes but are buried in debt.

"It's been a total disaster," said Gabriel Quetel, 74, who lost the home he had lived in since 1975 and most of the possessions in it.

Although Isabel flooded communities all along the mid-Atlantic when it hit two years ago today, it was nowhere near as devastating as Hurricane Katrina. But the residents of Cedarhurst, a small community on the Shady Side peninsula about 30 miles east of the District, say their experience is an example, writ small, of what's to come in Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as in North Carolina, hit last week by Hurricane Ophelia.

Since Isabel, recovery has been slow and fitful, marked at times by despair, frustration and anger. But as the community rebuilds, it also has experienced small triumphs, extraordinary acts of generosity and signs of progress.

Margaret Meadows's new house, light gray with white shutters and flowers in the yard, is not as big as the red-brick home she shared with her husband, Franklin, for more than 20 years. When the National Guard evacuated Meadows, 61, on the night of the storm, she was in such a rush that she forgot her shoes. Their new home suits the couple fine, she said, and after a year and a half in a rental house, they are thankful to have it.

For months after Isabel hit, she wasn't sure they were going to be able to rebuild. Their homeowners insurance paid just $1,800, she said, and they didn't have flood insurance. They qualified for a $100,000 construction loan and thought, "Who can build a house for $100,000?"

"We were in a real desperate situation," she said.

Then, as word of her predicament spread, a neighbor who works as a contractor said he would build her a house even though he could have made a lot more money elsewhere, according to Meadows.

"I'm so grateful," she said.

Down the street, Gabriel and Anne Quetel also are grateful for the prefabricated home they bought with a $142,000 loan after floodwaters knocked their previous house off its foundation.

But the new home, baby blue with newly planted rose bushes out front, is a veneer covering financial troubles.

The house they lost was paid for, and now monthly mortgage payments of $1,063 are stretching their budget to the point where Anne Quetel, 73, who has respiratory and heart problems, sometimes skips her medication to make the prescriptions last longer.

Their monthly income is $2,200, a combination of Social Security and Gabriel Quetel's pension from 16 years as an Anne Arundel wastewater plant operator. They said they will have no money by the end of the month.

"People said, 'Oh, you can start all over,' " Anne Quetel said. "We're in our seventies. How do you start all over when you are in your seventies? We're just barely making it."

Except for the kitchen table and chairs, almost all the furniture in their house, which they moved into in January, was donated by family and friends. As their savings dwindle, Anne Quetel is worried that this "will be the first Christmas we're not going to be able to buy presents for the family."

Gabriel Quetel never imagined that his retirement would end up like this.

"They told me these were my golden years," he said. "But I'd like to know where the gold is. It's tarnished."

Although most of the government-supplied trailers that once dotted the lawns in Cedarhurst are gone, a few remain. Next-door neighbors Eric Mackay and Eileen Thaden live in cramped campers with their families. Both said they have been trying for months to rebuild their homes but have been caught in bureaucratic tangles that have delayed construction.

Both are part of a federal lawsuit against insurance companies, top officials in the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA, which oversees the National Flood Insurance Program. The suit alleges that the companies and officials conspired to pay Isabel victims far less than what they are entitled to. Mackay, for example, said that after a long fight, he received about $60,000 on a policy that should have paid more than $100,000.

Making matters worse, Mackay and Thaden recently received eviction letters from FEMA that said they have violated the terms of the lease on their trailers in part because they "have not diligently undertaken to obtain permanent housing accommodations." Both are appealing the evictions, saying red tape has stalled progress on their homes.

"It's not like we've been sitting here doing nothing," Thaden said. "Our hands have been tied. If FEMA wants to come down hard on someone, they should look at the county or the state."

Melissa Janssen, a FEMA spokeswoman, said agency officials check on residents' progress each month. If people in trailers appeal their evictions, "they are not going to be forcibly removed," she said.

Jeff Welsh, a spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, said he couldn't comment on FEMA's decision to send the eviction notices. But he said the state recently asked FEMA to grant those in trailers another six-month extension. That request is under review. Forty-nine families are living in trailers and mobile homes in Maryland because of Isabel, down from a high of 289, according to FEMA.

"It's hard for these people to live like this," Welsh said. "But a lot of them encountered legitimate obstacles that have slowed them down. I do think the effort of the state and the counties has been very positive and effective. . . . The fact that it has taken this long, while not surprising, is disturbing because our goal has been to help everyone get out of the trailers quickly."

Despite the delays, Thaden and Mackay are determined to rebuild in Cedarhurst. It's where their friends are, they said, where their children have grown up. It's home.

Jo Anne Groves, president of the Cedarhurst Citizens Association, said she knows of only one person who is moving away for fear that another storm might hit. Her neighbors love the water, she said. Even though they lived through Isabel and know there's always a possibility of another storm, they would rather rebuild than move, she said.

"Hopefully, it won't happen again in our lifetime," she said.

Last Sunday, much of the community gathered by the shore to break ground for the new Cedarhurst Community House, which was wrecked by Isabel. It took months to get the building permits, but now construction is underway just a few yards from where the bay laps against the shore.

Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company