3 counties declared disaster areas

Low-interest loans, grants to be available to help in recovery from tornado

`Big bucks start coming'

Debris found 50 miles from La Plata, where volunteers aid cleanup

May 02, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

LA PLATA -- As this battered town labored yesterday to pick up the pieces, President Bush paved the way for federal disaster relief to cover uninsured property damage in Southern Maryland and on the Eastern Shore caused by Sunday's lethal tornado.

Bush declared Charles, Calvert and Dorchester counties disaster areas one day after Gov. Parris N. Glendening asked him for help. The announcement makes individual property owners eligible for grants or low-interest loans.

"That means the big bucks start coming," said Murray D. Levy, president of the Charles County Board of Commissioners.

Hundreds of properties were damaged or destroyed by the powerful twister that killed three people as it swept through the region. Officials have no idea how much money might be secured by uninsured or underinsured owners, but Lou Grasso might be a perfect example of the funding gap that many could find themselves in.

Grasso survived the twister's blistering attack on his antebellum mansion in La Plata but emerged to find the rear of the house -- 18-inch-thick brick walls and all -- mostly gone.

The house, called Ellenwood, carried "some" insurance, he said -- not that he was crunching numbers yesterday. The all-business, 63-year-old developer with a crewcut was too focused on repairing the house, the gardens, the barn, and a cabin that once served as slave quarters.

"I'm going to restore every inch of it, everything you see," he said, gazing out at his broken home and tree-littered grounds on the outskirts of town. "It's part of my family's heritage, and we're going to bring it back."

Yesterday was the third full day of the recovery, and although entire blocks still looked devastated, the fields of debris shrank noticeably. Heavy equipment scooped up tree limbs, tow trucks hauled away totaled cars, and people plucked valuables from their leveled homes.

New indications of the tornado's fury also were uncovered. Thomas Crook said the storm, whose winds were more than 261 mph, apparently carried building insulation and about 500 pieces of paper clear across the Chesapeake Bay and onto his horse farm in Oxford -- more than 50 miles away.

"Gosh, we had all kinds of junk," he said yesterday by cellular phone from his tractor. "I never put it together until I picked up some things that were clearly from La Plata." He said he threw away much of the debris before he realized what it was.

Crook found a letter, dated Sept. 19, 1955, requesting a home insurance policy from Edward L. Sanders Insurance in La Plata. The firm's brick office was mostly untouched by the storm, so the letter may have been stored in someone's house.

For all anyone knew, it came from Oak Avenue, a storm-ravaged strip now bereft of many houses and trees. But things were looking better yesterday, and the sounds told part of the story. The "beep-beep" of front-loaders filled the air, but so did the tweeting of songbirds perched in the tree stubs.

The parade of gawkers that annoyed homeowner Alicia Marchant had gone away, and her main question was whether her insurance policy would cover only the $185,000 mortgage on her 88-year-old house or also help her rebuild.

And myriad volunteers again paraded around offering their services, including members of the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation. They were offering financial aid to the families of those killed in the storm and to those seriously injured.

Back at Ellenwood -- built in the 1850s as a wedding gift for one Ellen Stockett -- Grasso recalled the harrowing moments when his family almost joined the casualty list. He and his wife, Pamela, were sitting on their patio when the clouds rolled in. When he stepped inside, the wind began whipping.

A window flew open upstairs, so he raced to the fourth floor to close it. Then the wind opened the door to his daughter's unoccupied bedroom a few feet away. As he tried to pull it shut, he said, "the room disappeared, went up into the sky."

"My first thought was it was some kind of a nuclear war. I really did. I've never experienced a tornado or anything of that force."

He ran down to the third floor, where his teen-age daughters sat frozen in fear. He ushered them into the basement, where his wife was waiting. But before he could get there himself, the wind pushed him to the front of the house, and he dove out the front door.

In seconds it was over, but the damage was done. The back of the house had been blown away, as had the front bedroom on the fourth floor. An exterior brick wall had been ripped away, exposing wallpaper and a fireplace. Hundreds of downed trees, some more than a century old, lay scattered everywhere -- making the trip down the quarter-mile drive an hour-long hike.

Yesterday Grasso had yet to put a tarp over the exposed part of the house because a cherry picker could not extend that high. He hoped to make use of the Fire Department's ladder truck.

"We just finished landscaping for spring," he said, recalling the day before the storm. "I told my wife the house looked better than it did in 35 years."

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