Ten months ago today, Hurricane Isabel devastated the one-traffic-light town of Colonial Beach 70 miles south of the Capital Beltway, destroying its marina and pier, eight homes, five restaurants and up to 100 old oak trees. Boats overturned, pilings collapsed and businesses lost roofs and walls. Debris from the storm may still be floating in the town's big natural asset, its five miles of Potomac River coastline.
Life is not back to what it was. At the height of the summer season, tourism is down, as the town at the entrance to Virginia's Northern Neck waits for the rebuilding of the marina and other damaged properties to be finished. And the modest community of 3,200 year-round residents, a quarter of whom live at or below the federal poverty line, continues to suffer from the storm's biggest casualty, a restaurant and off-track-betting complex called the Riverboat, built on pilings over the Maryland-owned river.
This is the first summer since its heyday a half-century ago as a slot-machine gambling resort that Colonial Beach is missing its main tourist attractions.
"Mother Nature is angry at us for whatever reason," said Brian E. Hooten, who became town manager in October, four weeks after the hurricane tore through. "It's been a rough year for this little town."
A fire at the marina in 2002 destroyed 50 boats and 100 slips. And a pollution-triggered blue-green algae bloom appeared in the water this month, giving swimmers rashes and prompting Hooten to close the 31/2 miles of beachfront during the Fourth of July weekend.
In the larger scheme of things, the algae bloom was a minor event. "Luckily, we missed the cicadas," joked Brian Grimley, owner of the Dockside Restaurant and Blue Heron Pub, which was closed for three months after the storm.
Yet disaster has brought some blessings. An infusion of federal money, renewed community pride and surging attention from developers is creating a small renaissance in the 2.6-square-miletown.
"If you want to say the storm had a silver lining, it's the recognition it gave to Colonial Beach," said George W. "Pete" Bone Jr., the mayor since 1996. "The publicity we received made us be recognized. People realized that this is a nice little town. The people are friendly. It's good for investment."
Bone said town officials have issued 56 building permits for new houses in the past year, up from fewer than a dozen three years ago. Washington and Fredericksburg residents are buying run-down Victorian homes and repairing them, he said. And out-of-town developers are buying hundreds of acres for golf course developments and retail and residential projects.
"We're trying to dispel the rumor that the town is dead," said Phil Bolin, president of the Chamber of Commerce and owner of two local businesses.
To that end, the chamber hired a Northern Virginia public relations firm this year to market Colonial Beach. The town's Web site includes a vision for the town in 2015. "Along the waterfront, people are playing miniature golf and happily enjoying the water park rides, games and other amusements," the plan says. It's a hoped-for return to the town's glory days.
Local officials are waiting for a championship golf course development they approved last summer -- with 900 townhouses, condominiums and single-family homes -- to break ground. That alone would increase the town's housing stock by 50 percent. Another developer has proposed a residential and commercial complex beside the beach's vacant boardwalk, which had grown so seedy and unsafe in the early 1990s that the town tore down most of its abandoned buildings.
The Lighthouse restaurant reopened last week.
Meanwhile, the owner of the Riverboat is expected to start rebuilding soon, with the goal of resurrecting off-track betting by next year. Gambling revenue goes to Maryland, but Colonial Beach profits from hotel stays and restaurant business, particularly during the Preakness, Kentucky Derby and other horse races, when simulcast betting is popular.
Stays in the town's 180 hotel rooms are off by about 25 percent this summer, the mayor said. Residents lament that the Happy Clam restaurant, destroyed by the hurricane, won't be rebuilt. But $600,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency has lifted the faces of dozens of town buildings and businesses -- and of many town residents as they look to the future.