After the storm

May 02, 2002

MEMBERS OF the Greater Waldorf Jaycees began telephoning Pam Thompson soon after a black snake of a twister struck Charles County on Sunday night. Ms. Thompson had a plan in mind for her volunteers -- preparing and delivering breakfast, lunch and dinner to the needy, the rescue workers, the cleanup crews. "Just show up," she told callers.

When the Jaycees weren't lugging cases of water and cans of soda, passing out ham and cheese sandwiches or serving up barbecue and fried chicken, they were delivering them in four-wheel-drives and trailers to the flattened and devastated city of La Plata.

This is what folks do in a time of need, in a time of crisis.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime event, this twister tearing up the Southern Maryland countryside for 24 miles and miraculously leaving only three dead. A nightmarish confluence of rain, hail and wind that turned homes into kindling and a downtown into a wasteland. A freakish act of nature that left people dazed and shaken but unbowed.

Mike Zabko, director of the La Plata chapter of the Red Cross, arrived at his office on Washington Street Sunday night to find it ... gone. Collapsed. He went straight to the county's emergency operations center and got to work anyway. He had lost his volunteer list, but he managed to reach 15 to 20 people, and by night's end they had opened an emergency shelter for 30.

He didn't return to his devastated office until two days later.

This is what folks do in a time of need, in a time of crisis.

Sally Jameson, cell phone at her ear, took up a position at the outdoor command center in La Plata. Her first response to those calling, interrupting her conversations, tapping her on the arm: "Whatcha need?"

As the executive director of the Charles County Chamber of Commerce, she is helping coordinate cleanup efforts in town. Help is coming from all around: search and rescue teams from Arlington, Va., debris grinders from Ocean City, deputy sheriffs from Calvert County, Anne Arundel County firefighters with a "kitchen on wheels," Marine engineers from the naval base at Indian Head.

Amish carpenters from Mechanicsville. Strong-armed men in straw hats, black beards and suspendered pants, they arrived in a van, unannounced and unexpected, and got to work with their pneumatic -- non-electric -- and gas-powered tools.

This is what folks do in a time of need, in a time of crisis.

Strangers become familiar faces in a place that suddenly reminds every one of home, of the randomness of a freak flash of nature and the potential for loss.

Warren Stapleton stepped out of his house to survey the damage left by the twister: 25 downed trees, the siding stripped from his house, the kids' playset on its end. Then he heard the screaming from next door. The woman hadn't yet moved in, but the house was a shambles and her husband buried beneath it. Call for help, Mr. Stapleton told his wife, as he revved up his electric saw to clear a path through the downed trees.

In a time of need, in a time of crisis, the people of La Plata discovered they were not alone.

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