In La Plata, everyone pays heed when the wind blows

Fear, anxiety surfacing as town tries to recover from fierce F5 tornado

May 03, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

LA PLATA - A tornado watch this frazzled town did not need yesterday, even if the advisory was so broad it covered parts of three states. With residents still reeling from Sunday's disastrous twister, the thought of a repeat was unfathomable.

"Please, Lord, let it not be another one," prayed Sherrie Jones, who had her first bad tornado dream the night before.

Her body shook as she packed up belongings in the condemned rented townhouse where she and her 8-year-old son Travis had lived through the twister.

A second tornado did not happen. The sky just turned dingy gray, and it got a bit windy.

Aside from whipping up new fears, the gusts also stirred up the emotions that experts say are surfacing now as the shock and adrenaline subside and reality sinks in.

"There is a lot of fear and anxiety," said Carol-Lynn Snowden, director of the Human Services Partnership, a Charles County agency. "Just an overwhelming sense of loss."

A trickle of residents has sought mental health counseling in a trailer set up outside the county government building, but Snowden expects that to become a torrent in coming days. A delayed reaction is typical of such disasters, she said.

Everyone copes differently, and varied approaches were on display around town.

On Oak Avenue, Sam Phillips and Holly Dunbar can't change the fact that their wrecked 109-year-old Victorian house will take up to a year and $300,000 to repair. But they can control how the yard looks.

So with the help of friends such as Steve Gelzer of Indian Head, they cleared debris from the yard, replanted the garden and mowed the grass at a time when some yards around them still resembled junkyards.

"It's a sign of hope to other people, a sign of growth," said Dunbar, an herbalist. She was preparing to plant several donated zinnias and marigolds; nearby sat herb plants given to her by some Mennonites over in Loveville.

For Phillips, putting the garden back in order was the surest way of calming his wife, who is five months' pregnant.

Four days after the tornado destroyed hundreds of buildings and left three people dead, a growing sense of normality took hold. All public schools and roads reopened; the post-disaster Outback Steakhouse food stand in the parking lot disappeared.

There was even a candidate for Congress, Joe Crawford, stepping around debris on Oak Avenue. Despite a small entourage and a large name tag, he insisted, "I'm not campaigning."

`OK to ask for help'

But with immediate needs such as emergency housing taken care of, mental health officials said residents now have more time to ponder what they have been experiencing. That is healthy, they said, because it keeps emotions from becoming bottled up.

"It's OK to ask for help," said Muriel Harper, part of a Red Cross mental health team that walked through damaged neighborhoods.

Last night, a separate group of experts held a session for all county residents who wanted to join in the group grieving.

The emotional impact is not necessarily limited to those caught in the twister's path.

"People's doctors offices are gone, the grocery stores where they shopped are gone," said Charles County Commission President Murray D. Levy. "You say `big deal,' but that has an impact."

No one can fully appreciate a tornado like those who survived one, as Sherrie Jones and her son did on Carroll Street. Just before it hit at a little after 7 p.m., she saw the swirling winds, grabbed Travis and hunkered in a bathroom.

Her ears popped, the winds howled, the house shook. But the roof held, and mother and son emerged physically unharmed. Across the street, houses were destroyed. Travis' Catholic school was ruined.

On Wednesday night, Jones relived the horror in her dreams for the first time. Only this time the roof blew off. That is when she awoke about 1 a.m.

If the dream keeps recurring, she said, she will see a therapist.

She has been focused on trying to ease her son's new fears of wind. Whenever a breeze blows through and he cries, "Mommy!" she tells him to listen for the helicopters that have hovered almost nonstop since Monday.

They wouldn't fly unless it was safe, she says.

Her own emotions have begun gyrating lately. One minute she will feel blessed to be alive, and the next she will look out the front door "and it's like Oklahoma."

Sometimes her brave face crumbles. Yesterday, she was trying to tape a moving box donated by the law firm where she works when she suddenly began sobbing. A friend, Debbie Thompson, walked over and hugged her.

"It's going to take time," Jones finally said after a few minutes, repeating her goal of moving back after her landlord fixes the damage.

The memory of Sunday keeps popping into her head, she said. "I'll always remember holding onto him and hoping we wouldn't get sucked out."

It did not help Jones' state of mind that the weather turned foul yesterday after three days of sunshine. As heavy rain fell in the morning, she stood at her door nervously scanning the skies.

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