“Hurricane” Hazel tells her best stories while she’s picking crabs. The 83-year-old great-grandmother holds the world record for crab picking: 5.58 pounds in 20 minutes.

“Hurricane” Hazel Cropper demonstrates the fine art of crab picking to Chris Kurtz. (Susan Kim / OutLook by the Bay)

A longtime professional crab picker, she’ll tell you her secret: “I can look at you, and talk to you, and I don’t even have to watch what I’m picking,” she said. “And that’s what gets ‘em!” 

She has traveled the world doing crab picking demonstrations but she always ends up back in her hometown of Crisfield, known as the Seafood Capital of the World, and perhaps lesser known for repeat floods that have deluged the homes of its 2,600 residents.

Hazel Cropper — her real name — has seen her share of floods. She “shop-vacs” the water out and keeps going. Inside her house, the floors and walls are warped with water damage, and the flood stories spill out of her in the form of sermons. 

“I’ve been a flood victim five times,” said Cropper. “Storms gonna come and storms gonna go, but if you’ve got the love of God, you’ll make it through.”

These days, the Eastern Shore Long Term Recovery Group is also helping people like Hurricane Hazel “make it through.” She’s on a waiting list for a new home — one that will be free from mold, and elevated so the next flood won’t cause so much damage.

Floods seem to be getting worse in Crisfield, residents agree. Inside the Smith Island Baking Company, Executive Chef Garrett Lee said the business was damaged for the first time by flooding in October 2021. ““That was the first time water had gotten in the building — and it was very shocking,” he said. 

But the baking company keeps going: the sweet smell of Smith Island cakes still fills the building, business is good, and Lee is on hand to share samples with out-of-towners who are curious about the mystique of the Smith Island cake. 

“Eight layers of cake, seven layers of icing,” explained Lee. “And we have 1,659 cake pans in here in case you were wondering.”

Down the road, another resident, another flood survivor, Herbert Sterling goes through paperwork as he prepares to apply for help from the Eastern Shore Long Term Recovery Group. The coalition of faith-based and voluntary agencies helps the most vulnerable people — those who are uninsured, disabled or otherwise unable to repair their flood-damaged homes. 

Sterling, a Vietnam War veteran unable to speak clearly due to effects from being exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange, has written on a clipboard “I can’t talk too good. I had Agent Orange, Vietnam War.” 

But he clearly communicates a sense of hope when Kim Hopkins, program coordinator for the Eastern Shore Long Term Recovery Group, tells him volunteers might be able to help build him a new home. 

Hopkins, who knows just about everyone in Crisfield, said that many people have been living with flood damage for a long time. “In some ways, this latest round of flooding was the worst because it was invisible,” she said. “A house looks fine — then you walk in the door and people have no floor.”

As for Hurricane Hazel, she’s keeping the shop-vac ready for hurricane season. And she’s ready to show you how to pick crabs with one caveat: “No tip — no meat!” she quips, and cracks herself up. 

Then she leans into Hopkins for a hug. “Thank you, sister,” said Cropper. ‘Whatever gifts we’ve got, we don’t get on our own.”

To share crab-picking tips, suggestions for natural bug repellants, and other shore lore with journalist Susan Kim, contact her at [email protected].

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