CRISFIELD, Md. — Michelle Pruitt has lived through many hurricanes in her 55 years.
Flooding during storms is not unusual in her native Crisfield, especially on Cove Street, where she and her husband, Royce, have lived and raised four kids since 1985.
But the flooding that arrived Oct. 29, 2012, during Hurricane Sandy was like none she and other residents had seen before. Pruitt and her mother, who was undergoing treatment for lung cancer and was in frail condition, managed to escape in a skiff and eventually were picked up by a Maryland National Guard truck.
“That was a crazy, crazy night,” she said.
The Pruitts weren’t alone. Starting in the afternoon and throughout the night, 911 operators were swamped with calls for help from Crisfield, located on the Chesapeake Bay about 150 miles south of Philadelphia, and other waterfront areas of Somerset County for water rescues from houses and stranded vehicles, trees that had fallen on houses and at least three house fires.
The hurricane also tore the roof off the Crisfield Police Department, sank docked boats, severely damaged the City Dock and knocked out power for days.
By the time the water receded, the Pruitts and other residents came back to badly damaged houses that soon became moldy and unsafe for habitation.
In the five years since Sandy, an infusion of $25 million in federal grants and volunteer recovery efforts totaling more than $11 million have helped rebuild Crisfield and other affected areas of Somerset County.
The Somerset County Long Term Recovery Committee, formed soon after the disaster, brought together representatives of local government, as well as nonprofit and faith-based organizations. Many of those people had never worked together before, but they have since formed lasting relationships, said attorney John Phoebus, who was involved with early recovery efforts in Crisfield.
Between the committee and the federal grant money administered by the county, nearly 300 damaged houses have been repaired or replaced and infrastructure has been rebuilt and reinforced in the city which had a population of 2,726 when the storm hit.
“I think we bounced back,” Phoebus said. “If anything, we came back stronger.”
Crisfield officials agree that many residents and the city itself are better off now than before Sandy hit, but Mayor Kim Lawson wishes that part of the federal recovery money had been spent on efforts to help lessen the effects of future storms.
Proposals by Somerset County to build offshore rock barriers near Janes Island State Park to the north and repair an old, earthen dike system in a marsh southwest of town have been deemed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to be too costly compared to the actual benefits they would provide.
Estimates for the two projects were in the tens of millions of dollars — more than the Corps of Engineers or the county were willing or able to pay.
Still, Lawson thinks something needs to be done.
“Do you move your town?” he said. “We’ve done a lot of things, but we haven’t done anything to mitigate the effects (of storms) over the next 20 to 25 years.”
"Fast and furious"
When the wind from Hurricane Sandy changed direction and began pushing water from Tangier Sound onto the streets, the Pruitts were at home with Michelle’s mother, Diane Hinman.
“The water came so fast and furious,” she said. “Royce said, ‘You need to get your mom out of here.’ ”
The water was too deep to drive through, so they called 911 for help. In the meantime, Royce, a waterman who keeps several boats in the yard, pulled a skiff around to the front door and loaded Michelle and her mother into it.
“For the first time — and probably the last time — I was thankful for the many boats in our yard,” she said with a laugh.
Royce pulled the boat through the chest-deep water down Cove Street when they saw a National Guard truck headed toward them. Soon, Michelle and her mother were loaded onboard, but the route to dry land hit a snag: The truck got stuck on an obstacle — probably a mailbox — beneath the floodwaters.
While they were waiting to be rescued a second time, the Guardsmen responded to nearby calls for help from a woman with a newborn baby and an elderly man with only one leg. Eventually, all of the evacuees were transferred to another truck and taken to high ground. Michelle and her mother were picked up by her brother and taken to his house in Kingston, located between Westover and Marion Station.
Meanwhile, Royce had no sooner returned home to move valuables upstairs and keep an eye on the house than a tree came crashing down onto the roof over the back deck.
Even more damage was discovered once the storm passed and the water receded.
The Pruitts returned to a house with a crumbling foundation, and the structure itself was listing. The couple got only $5,000 from their flood and homeowner’s insurance policies, and used the money to make some repairs.
But they soon discovered mold, then some of the walls began shifting.