Business owners look ahead after deadly tornado

Despite heavy damage, they vow to recover along with the town

May 01, 2002|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

LA PLATA - From what remains of the office supply company - a 30-foot pile of wood and plaster - it seemed reasonable to expect that it would be some time before Shipp Data Supplies would reopen.

"What do you mean? We're open for business today," said Vicki Shipp, trying to convince cleanup crews that she was serious.

Though it will be months before she and her husband reopen their storefront in downtown La Plata, they are taking orders by fax at their home, she said.

Days ago, Charles Street, La Plata's main street, was a thriving commercial district. Businesses had rehabilitated historic buildings as the town grew from a rural outpost to a developing suburb of Washington.

In recent years, the lawyers and title companies that kept offices near the county courthouse had been joined by new restaurants, doctors offices and specialty shops.

Posey's, a family-owned grocery and deli operated by generations of the same family, was still in business. New businesses, including an acupuncturist and a massage therapy practice, were thriving.

But no more.

For every business that remained standing yesterday, another was destroyed by Sunday's tornado, leaving the center of the Charles County seat in ruins.

The storm flattened about 50 offices and stores, and as many as 100 - practically every business in town - were damaged, according to officials who repeated promises yesterday to rebuild La Plata as owners spent the day trying to save what was left.

"The businesses got hit with a double whammy," said Sally Jameson, executive director of the Charles County Chamber of Commerce. "Not only do [owners] have to rebuild their offices, they're probably going home to damaged houses at night."

Officials said it was too early to predict the impact the storm would have on the local economy, but no one doubted that businesses would feel the effects.

"There's so much damage it's overwhelming," said State Farm agent Tom Grillo, whose insurance office roof was torn off by the category F5 tornado that packed winds of more than 261 mph.

Even so, he said, "I wouldn't be surprised if doctors offices and some of the other offices don't open their doors again by early next week."

That is, if they still have doors to open.

More than 50 businesses were destroyed Sunday night, said county officials who are still trying to tally the losses.

Some residents worried that dozens of local companies might go out of business in the year it could take to rebuild commercial complexes. But business owners in town seemed determined to make it.

"I started out with nothing, and that's what I have now," said Kara Thompson, owner of Kara's Nail Care just off Route 6 near the courthouse. "But I am going to do what I can to start over."

She has been offered space at nearby salons until her shop is rebuilt.

Jameson said many businesses, even competitors, had offered to share space with businesses left without offices. Especially encouraging, she said, was an announcement yesterday by the mayor that a local construction company had promised to build 26 modular office units within the next two weeks.

"Our fear has been that if the businesses have to move to find temporary office space, they might not come back," Jameson said.

Meanwhile, convenience stores and home-improvement companies could experience a boom as the town rebuilds, business owners predicted as they watched a steady stream of construction crews from all over Maryland and Virginia converge on the town yesterday.

"If there's $100 million in damage, there's going to be $140 million in work that needs to be done," said Joe Guyett, a carpenter for an Upper Marlboro-based construction company. "Half of that is going to be labor."

Many businesses with damage that can be repaired, such as The Crossing at Casey Jones, an upscale restaurant in the center of town, expect to keep all 50 of their employees on the payroll until they reopen.

"Right now, our kitchen staff is sweeping and hauling trash," said Lisa Bales, who owns the popular pub and dining room with her husband, Paul. "But it's important. Our goal right now is to be there for the town.

"We won't recover until the town does."

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