The Carter administration is reconsidering its decision to send thousands of Cuban refugees to an abandoned U.S. Navy training station in northeast Maryland after learning yesterday that the facility is badly dilapidated.
General Services Administration officials who examined the housing at the former Bainbridge Naval Training Station in rural Cecil County estimated it could cost at least $5 million to prepare the site for the refugees, and as much as $20 million more to maintain it while the former base is in use.
"It looks pretty negative now. They'd save the government a lot of money if they sent those people (the Cubans) somewhere else," said one federal official acquainted with the GSA findings.
The final decision on the Bainbridge facility will depend on whether other, less dilapidated abandoned bases are available, according to Peter Lee, GSA's regional administrator in Philadelphia. Lee, one of six GSA officials who toured the Bainbridge center yesterday, stressed that the government is under pressure to find housing for some 20,000 refugees originally slated for the Maryland site.
The White House notified Gov. Harry Hughes and members of the state's congressional delegation Sunday night that the 1,200-acre site in Port Deposit would be prepared for use as a refugee center.
The plan touched off protests from two Maryland congressmen -- Rep. Robert Bauman, who represents Port Deposit, and Rep. Clarence Long -- and was bitterly denounced by residents of Port Deposit, a town of 900 that overlooks the Susquehanna River.
While administration officials were making up their minds about the Maryland site, Army officials were going ahead with preparations at a second camp at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa. According to the Army, 2,000 Cuban refugees will arrive there on Friday for processing.
The refugees will be housed in barracks which served as temporary housing for over 22,000 Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees over a six-month period in 1975.
According to a White House spokesman, presidential assistant Jack Watson asked the Defense Department to prepare the two sites to handle the growing numbers of refugees arriving in this country from Cuba. Federal officials estimate that Fort Chafee, Ark., the main processing center, will be filed to its 20,000 capacity by Sunday.
The Bainbridge site was abandoned by the Navy six years ago.Although parts of it are used by the Labor Department as a Job Corps training center, the base now resembles a ghost town. The "better housing" -- 4,000 asbestos-tiled apartment units known as Manor Heights, where the families of the Navy trainees lived from World War II until 1973 -- needs extensive plumbing, roofing, electrical and landscaping repairs, according to GSA and Navy officials.
In one apartment building described as "typical," vandals have ripped out much of the copper wiring and tubing, ruining the plumbing and electrical systems. There are gaping holes in the ceiling, caused by a leaky roof, and a stale odor of mildew permeates the unit.
Outside, two-foot-high weeds have choked the grass and overgrown much of the street and sidewalks. A maintenance official said many copperheads now slither through the weedy areas.
"Based on what they need to do as quickly as they need to do it, I don't see it as humanly possible," said James R. White, executive director of the Susquehanna-Chesapeake Job Corps centers on the training center site.
Lee, the regional administrator of the GSA, said the center would need "sanitary facilities, hospital facilities, food, housing, recreation, educational efforts and more. You're talking about a significant amount of money unless we get into a tent city operation."
Lee and other federal officials insisted yesterday that no final decision on using the Bainbridge site had ever been made.
"We never spent any money on reconstruction or renovation, and didn't award any contracts," said a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is coordinating the processing of the exiles.
"We're fully aware that some of the buildings there are not immediately habitable and that Bainbridge would need some work.
"It's one of 30 or 40 places that we're looking at. It was never at the top of the list," he added.
But Rep. Long said that Bill Cable, a White House official in charge of congressional relations, told him on Sunday that officials had decided to send Cuban exiles to Bainbridge. Cable did not return telephone calls placed yesterday.
"There isn't room for more than 2,500 people at Bainbridge," said Long. "Not unless they live in tents and trailers, and no one has mentioned that.
"There's no way they're going to get 20,000 people in those buildings. There are only 500 or 600 houses, with three or four bedrooms each. They're flimsily built, the doors are kicked in, the windows are broken and the plumbing has been vandalized."
Long rounded up the Cecil County Commission and several reporters early yesterday to tour the site.
Long, who faces a serious challenge in today's primary, said his trip to Port Deposit was not political but rather an effort to help the rural area learn more about the refugee resettlement plan. Bauman, however, denounced Long's actions as a publicity stunt.
A dozen men enjoying an afterwork beer in Port Deposit's lone bar and grill laughed uproariously yesterday when the country music blaring from a radio was interrupted by news reports that the refugees might not come to their town after all.
Earlier, they and their neighbors had been far less cheerful. They had conjured up images of thousands of Cubans with criminal records and contagious diseases being disgorged into their community.
"In the first place, I don't think they should be in the United States," said George Logan, who runs the local marina. "They say they're criminals and some of them are sickly. We've got enough of those people here in this country now that the government isn't taking care of."
Down the street at the bar and grill, the men suggested alternately that the government send the refugees to Plains, Georgia, to work in President Carter's peanut fields or to Three Mile Island, about 70 miles north of here.
"What do they want with us? This here's a small community. We have no doctor, we have no hospital, no grocery store, no filling station. We have nothing," said W. G. Masterson, a retired chief petty officer who was stationed at the Bainbridge site.
At Indiantown Gap, a National Guard training Center, the Army is preparing for a repeat of its 1975 role as a center for Vietnamese refugee arrivals.
A special refugee resettlement task force, comprising nearly 1,000 army personnel, civilians and members of the State Department, are expected to arrive there today, headed by Brig. Gen. Grail L. Brookshire, from Fort Carson, Colo.
"We don't know whether they'll set up the same procedures as before," said an Army spokesman, "but it's going to be a lot easier this time. Back then we had no idea what would happen."
The military installation yesterday began advertising for 300 clerical workers who will assist in the processing operation. Local food contractors are also being hired to supply Spanish-oriented foodstuffs.
"When the Vietnamese were here, they ate soy sauce, rice, things like that," said the spokesman. "We try to make them feel at home."
It is not known how the Cuban refugees will be received in the area in light of increasing unemployment and economic woes.
"People are struggling themselves," said the Army spokesman. "You just don't know how people will feel."
At Chicken Lickin restaurant near the training center, waitress Caroline Dubbs said she was shocked to hear of the number of Cuban refugees coming to America. "I was here when the Vietnamese came in," she said, pouring a cup of coffee. "Now I hear all the Cubans are coming. We have enough to take care of here. Enough crime, enough unemployment." CAPTION: Picture 1, Officials estimate it would take $5 million to make Bainbridge facilities fit to house Cuban refugees; Picture 2, The Navy abandoned the 1,200-acre Bainbridge training facility six years ago. It has 4,000 apartment units. Photos by James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post