After the water subsided and the canoes stopped using the streets, after part of the boardwalk was reduced to a memory and the governor had moved on, the Southern Maryland town of North Beach confronted an obvious fact: Its face had been changed forever.
One year ago this weekend, Hurricane Isabel pummeled the Washington region. In North Beach, Isabel swept the Chesapeake Bay water over the seawall, demolishing 18 homes. For Mary Sullivan, 70, who was disabled by polio and lives alone, the loss of her residence and the prospect of rebuilding seemed almost too much to bear.
"I didn't know where to go or what to do," she recalled. "I couldn't do nothing but cry."
Today, Sullivan's home of 37 years has been rebuilt, raised eight feet to protect against future flooding and equipped with a hydraulic lift for her wheelchair. Such renovations have begun to transform the town's waterfront, known in the 1960s as a hardscrabble haven for slot-machine gamblers and motorcycle gangs. In the place of weather-worn cottages, two- and three-story homes are rising over the bay. The boardwalk is back, condominiums are under construction, and there are plans to build a 72-room hotel and spa to attract more tourists.
"Isabel has changed the whole character of the town," said Barbara Gray, who is on the North Beach council.
Across the Washington region, the hurricane's mark can be found in changes large and small, institutional and personal. Though officially downgraded to a tropical storm before it hit the Washington area head-on, Isabel is regarded as one of the region's most devastating natural disasters.
It damaged thousands of homes and businesses and eroded miles of shoreline. In Virginia, the deaths of 32 people were attributed to the storm and its aftermath, according to records updated last month by the state Department of Emergency Management. Only Hurricane Camille in 1969, which killed 153 people, was more deadly in the state's history.
In Maryland, eight deaths were attributed to Isabel, and a traffic death in the District was linked to the loss of power to traffic lights, authorities said.
Fixing a price tag on property destruction is an imprecise science. In Virginia, where more than 1,000 homes were destroyed and an additional 9,000 damaged, officials estimate that Isabel caused $1.9 billion in losses. That included more than $10 million in Alexandria and Fairfax County, where floodwaters surged through Alexandria's Old Town and the Belle View neighborhood of Fairfax, damaging 2,200 homes and more than 60 businesses.
Nearly $96 million in public and private assistance was allocated to storm victims and state agencies in Maryland, according to federal officials. More than 3,200 homes in the state were damaged enough to receive a tax abatement.
The District spent nearly $7 million on employee overtime, cleanup contractors and other expenses from the storm.
Rain was not the big problem. It poured less than expected, dropping two to five inches on the Washington area. But with 50- to 77-mph wind gusts and soil saturated from earlier storms, trees practically dived for the ground, taking power lines with them. Tidal surges, surpassing 10 feet in parts of the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay, did the rest.
Left in the Dark
Many will remember Isabel for its darkness. More than 1 million people in the Washington area lost power, an unprecedented number, some for as long as 10 days. Freezers became hot boxes. Stoplights ceased to give orders. Both rich and poor dined by candlelight.
The performance of Pepco frustrated many and spawned public and private investigations after 500,000 customers were without power. Since Isabel, the utility has changed its damage assessment and customer communications systems. It now posts more outage information and restoration times on its Web site and can handle more customer calls.
Since the storm, Pepco decided to stop distributing dry ice during blackouts -- a program that angered customers last year when supplies ran out -- to focus on bringing back the lights.
"I think we made a tremendous amount of progress in general," said Mike Maxwell, Pepco's vice president of emergency preparedness, a position created after Isabel. "But we're never quite there, so to speak, and we are going to continue to look at how we do things."
In the District, the problem of traffic lights not working encouraged the D.C. Department of Transportation to sign a $2 million contract to retrofit 400 lights at key intersections so emergency generators could provide backup power. The retrofitting should be finished by spring, said department spokesman Bill Rice.
The Maryland Public Service Commission directed Pepco to be more aggressive in clearing trees near power lines. The utility plans to spend $10.3 million on tree-trimming this year, about $2 million more than it spent in 2002, company officials said.
About 11 p.m. last Sept. 18, with Isabel close to full fury, one of the richest counties in the Washington region was about to learn a lesson in basic survival. That's when the storm knocked out power to four Fairfax County Water Authority purifying plants. Not long after, the faucets of 1.2 million customers ran dry. The problem spread to Prince William and Loudoun counties, which get water from Fairfax.
Water pressure was restored soon, but concerns about bacterial contamination led authorities to tell people to boil their water or mix it with small amounts of bleach before drinking. With the power out, some residents got innovative, purifying their water over the flame of the backyard barbecue. Within three days the restrictions were lifted, yet reforms at the water authority, now called Fairfax Water, continue.
In March, Fairfax Water committed $60 million for emergency generators and a two-week backup supply of water. The plan, which may take three to five years to implement, will cost $1.25 for the average customer per month.
Some scientists say Isabel may have a long-lasting impact on the environment. The tidal surge pushed back the shoreline 10 to 12 feet in places such as Hoopersville on Maryland's Eastern Shore and caused about $85 million in erosion damage throughout the region. The storm also ripped up beds of underwater grasses in the southern Chesapeake Bay that scientists say are crucial for filtering pollutants.
But the churning water proved a boon in other respects. In the months before Isabel, the Chesapeake had serious problems with "bad water," or zones of low dissolved oxygen, caused in part by insufficient mixing of water layers. The roiling of the bay folded oxygen-rich surface water into the depths, scientists said.
One year later, Henry Hale lives with Isabel every day. His home in Oxford, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, was condemned after the floodwaters poured in; all that remains is a foundation overgrown with weeds.
Like thousands of others after Isabel, Hale was not satisfied with the payment he was offered by the National Flood Insurance Program, run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The computer company employee and part-time bartender had $105,000 in coverage and a gutted home, but insurance adjusters said he could get $38,000 to rebuild, he said. An independent contractor estimated it would cost $111,000 to repair the damage identified by an adjuster.
The rage over insurance -- including problems that Hale's dogged neighbor, Steve Kanstoroom, helped bring to light -- have led some elected officials to conclude that flood insurance is one of Isabel's most troubling legacies.
"There were very serious flaws," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who pushed for several changes in federal legislation to reauthorize the flood insurance program. Policyholders "were getting different and conflicting information. As the adjusters came through, people found out they were getting low-balled repair estimates. What they thought was covered they found out was not."
Kanstoroom, who has been asked by Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. (D) to prepare a report on his flood insurance findings, discovered that some insurance adjusters calculated repair estimates based on the prices of new construction rather than renovation. After a natural disaster, most construction is repair work, which generally costs more than new construction, often by tens of thousands of dollars.
"The National Flood Insurance Program is a failure," Smith said. "We are one year after and we are experiencing the same things we experienced immediately after Isabel: broken promises."
A reauthorization law, signed by President Bush in June, calls for the Government Accountability Office to report on the flood insurance program within a year. The changes included in the law call for full disclosure of flood policy details, better training for insurance agents and a formalized appeals process.
Mikulski said several constituents raised issues of "possible illegal activity," including adjusters "offering them cash to keep quiet." She asked the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security to investigate.
The uproar led FEMA to offer to review all 23,697 Isabel flood claims. In Maryland and Virginia, 1,584 people requested the review, and 46 percent of those cases closed with a total of $5.4 million in additional payouts, FEMA officials said.
"We've taken steps to continually improve," said David Maurstad, the acting director of the flood insurance program. "I'm confident that the program is not set up with a bias to not provide a fair settlement to policyholders."
After months of wrangling, Hale said, he has been offered $20,000 more to repair his home. Not good enough, he said. He's one of seven lead plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore in May against private insurance companies that administer flood insurance on behalf of the federal program. Since the lawsuit was filed, Hale said, his discussions with his insurance company stopped.
Missing Life Before
Two small photo albums remind Mary Sullivan what happened in North Beach that day. She flips the pages in her barren new home, points out her old possessions -- the French dining room set, four televisions, two refrigerators, family heirlooms. All washed away.
She stayed with a friend in Dunkirk for a year and moved back home last month. She misses the way her old house was laid out and how she could reach the kitchen sink from her wheelchair.
On the morning of Isabel, she left with three changes of clothes, expecting a quick return. The sun-sparkled bay stretched flat like a mirror; the air hardly whispered. How pretty, she thought as the van pulled away, how calm.
Staff writers D'Vera Cohn, Tim Craig and David A. Fahrenthold contributed to this report.