By JENN DAVIS
Capital News Service
CLAIBORNE — Claiborne was spared last year when Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on fishing towns just down the shoreline.
But few of the sleepy communities that dot the Eastern Shore are likely better prepared for the worst than this unincorporated enclave of 100 residents.
A couple years ago, they pooled more than $55,000 of their own money, without any outside help, to transform an old wood church into a community center for potlucks and a disaster refuge for storms.
Not coincidentally, the greater Claiborne area is home to a host of “disaster junkies,” as they call themselves. They include the president of a disaster communication company, a former national Red Cross executive, a former director for Organization of American States — and Jack Harrald, the director of the Center for Community Security and Resilience at Virginia Tech.
The seaside enclave is located down a narrow, flat, bumpy road, just 10 miles west of St. Michaels. Century-old homes with water views rest snugly alongside each other. There are boats in their backyards, and residents have access to a small, hidden beach.
Harrald has been the driving force behind the Claiborne’s grassroots disaster planning. He and his wife bought a second home there in 2003, while he was still director of the George Washington University Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management. They have lived in the community full time since his retirement in 2008. He has since established a new center at Virginia Tech.
The Claiborne homeowner’s association acquired the vacant Methodist church in 2011 and christened it Claiborne Village Hall, with the intention of creating a community gathering place for poetry nights, book clubs and concerts.
Harrald said he and other community leaders also proposed developing a disaster plan that would use the church, which sits on high ground, for emergency assistance and supplies. They were inspired by the near misses of hurricanes Irene and Sandy and by projections of an increase in the severity of storms and flooding due to climate change.
During community discussions about emergency preparedness and evacuations, many people admitted they would not evacuate during a major storm, he said. That presented a problem for disaster planning.
“There’s a consensus that people should leave early,” he said, citing heavy traffic on major roadways as a problem. “If you don’t leave early, you have to be prepared to ride it out.”
So he proposed adding emergency electricity, a septic system, a water service and a full kitchen and bathroom and to the community center, since the village runs on two wells. The renovations would provide residents with a temporary place to cook meals and sleep while they fixed their homes or, in a worst-case scenario, rode out the storm.
“The community would have access to immediate assistance in the aftermath of disasters,” Harrald said.
He applied for about $50,000 of Hurricane Sandy disaster funds from the Maryland Emergency Management Agency for the project. But the state rejected his application about a month ago, explaining in a letter that the project did not meet eligibility requirements to qualify for funding under the Hazard Mitigation Grant program.
Funneled from the national level to the state governments, the funds often have strict requirements for use, making it harder for innovative proposals to qualify, said Chris Cortina, the coastal planning and community coordinator at the state’s Department of Natural Resources.
Harrald is revising the proposal and plans to resubmit.
In fact, he hopes to get government buy-in for making the Claiborne project a prototype that could be replicated and adapted to other communities that stand in harm’s way.
“I think there should be a change in funding, from post-event recovery to pre-event planning,” he said. “These investments can lower emergency costs later.”