BALTIMORE - Kim Sullivan remembers having a bad feeling about 10 years ago in the days leading up to Tropical Storm Isabel wreaking havoc on Maryland.
While the storm had weakened coming up the East Coast, something instinctively made Sullivan decide to pack her family up from their Bowleys Quarters home in Baltimore County and stay with loved ones.
“Many longtime residents laughed at us as we boarded up our house and headed out,” Sullivan said. “They told me they had rode out many storms through the years and expected to do the same with Isabel.”
Sullivan is glad she didn’t follow suit.
Ten years ago this week, residents across the state, including in eastern Baltimore County, Anne Arundel County, southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore dealt with the devastation of Isabel, which caused more than $1 billion in damages in Maryland and left a legacy that won’t soon be forgotten by those that lived through it.
Among those hardest hit were waterfront communities such as Bowleys Quarters, Fells Point and Annapolis. Much of the damage was caused by the 7 to 9 foot storm surge that came at high tide. Hundreds of homes were completely flooded, businesses were destroyed and hundreds of thousands were left without power.
ABC2 News meteorologist Lynette Charles said a storm surge is often the greatest threat to life and property from a hurricane. She added that storm surge is an abnormal rise of water generated by a storm, over and above the predicted astronomical tides.
Charles said Isabel was the worst hurricane to affect the Chesapeake Bay region since 1933. Storm surge values of more than 8 feet flooded rivers that flowed into the bay across Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and Washington, D.C. Isabel was the most intense hurricane of the 2003 season and directly resulted in 17 deaths and more than $3 billion in damages across the region, she said.
“This rise in water level can cause extreme flooding in coastal areas particularly when storm surge coincides with normal high tide, resulting in storm tides reaching up to 20 feet or more in some cases,” Charles said.
‘A total loss’
In Baltimore County, more than 400 people needed to be rescued, marinas were greatly damaged, hundreds of trees were downed and 220,000 people were left without power. In Anne Arundel County, more than 2,000 homes were damaged and 211,000 people were left without power.
For Sullivan, it was a total loss; one in which it would take her family years to recover from.
“We packed a weekend’s worth of clothes and a few other supplies,” Sullivan said. “When we were finally allowed back in, our home was under three feet of water and was condemned by the county. We had to start over.”
Sullivan’s story was not unique. Hundreds of Maryland families were left with nothing after the Isabel, and making matters worse, many either had no flood insurance or were forced to deal with a bureaucratic nightmare trying to file a claim.
Sullivan said Isabel itself was nothing compared to the agony she dealt with over the following two years trying to rebuild her home and her life. Sullivan, her daughters and her then-husband, spent some time with friends and for a short time in a trailer they purchased before moving into an apartment for 18 months.
Like many Isabel victims, the Sullivans were bounced between multiple insurance companies and government agencies, each telling them they had the wrong form, the wrong designation or a faulty claim. The stress put a strain on their family, Sullivan said, and played a role in her marriage eventually ending up in divorce.
“There was so much pressure involved,” she said. “I turned to the church and my husband turned [in another direction]. You don’t know how you will respond to a stressful situation until you are actually placed in one. That is when you learn the most about yourself and others.”
Roadblocks to recovery
Jim Smith felt Sullivan’s pain and the pain of all the Isabel victims. Smith was a year into his first term as Baltimore County executive when the storm came through the area. He remembers flying over eastern Baltimore County in a helicopter in the aftermath of the storm and seeing whole neighborhoods underwater.
“There were boats floating past houses, cars flipped upside down, homes destroyed and water just about everywhere,” said Smith, currently the secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation. “I recall people were just in shock and not sure what direction to turn. We needed to take decisive action and let people know they weren’t alone.”
Richard Muth shares Smith’s sentiment. Muth was Baltimore County director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management at the time of Isabel and was with Smith as he assessed the damage.
“I’d never seen anything like that in all of my years in emergency management,” said Muth, a former firefighter and head of Maryland Emergency Management Agency. “We thought we had skirted the worst of it, and then the storm surge came. The state hadn’t seen damage like that since