Recovery and remembrance

Tornado: A year after the storm, La Plata residents mark their progress in rebuilding.

April 27, 2003|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

LA PLATA - It has been a year since the tornado, and not everything is coming back. Not the oak trees that lent this Southern Maryland town a stately charm, nor the toppled water tower, nor the 100-year-old wood-frame house that carpenter Ronald Johnson had lived in all his life.

A beauty salon is simply gone, as are a home improvement store, a fast-food chicken joint and a grocery. Weeds wave slowly in the breeze in the vacant lot where Patsy Benson's flower shop stood until winds exceeding 207 mph careened through town amid ominous hail and premature darkness in the early evening of April 28. "It's just a little plot of grass now," Benson says of her store.

So with all the destruction - 48 commercial buildings and 41 homes destroyed, more than 150 businesses displaced - why did the town decide to hold a "Celebrate La Plata" festival to commemorate the disaster's first anniversary with youth concerts, jugglers and face painting?

How is it that La Plata is literally singing this weekend when its downtown resembles, in the words of an old Jim Croce rock song, "a jigsaw puzzle with a couple of pieces gone"?

The answer is that resilient La Plata is reveling in its recovery, incomplete as it may be. And that the town and surrounding area, for all of its loss, believes that the damage, particularly the human toll - five deaths and dozens of injuries - could have been staggeringly worse.

"I just really wanted to take a minute to remember how blessed we were," said William F. Eckman, 73, a retired telephone company executive who is the town's part-time mayor.

He organized a pancakes-and-sausage prayer breakfast at a church yesterday to not only acknowledge the town's loss but "to celebrate the people not injured in one of the worst disasters in Maryland history. By all odds, there should have been truckloads of bodies."

Residents sat on bales of hay yesterday to watch youth jazz bands and singers perform under a tent downtown. The Archbishop Neale School, destroyed in the tornado, set up a booth and sold plaques mounted on bricks from the ravaged building as mementos for $100 apiece. Proceeds went to the rebuilding fund for the Catholic elementary school.

`Unsung heroes'

The final anniversary event will be a program tomorrow sponsored by Charles County and scheduled to include a tribute to "unsung heroes," remarks by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and others, and the planting of a memorial tree. An interfaith prayer service is scheduled for 7 p.m., which is about the time the tornado hit.

At first ranked as Maryland's first-ever F5 twister on the Fujita damage scale, the killer storm was later downgraded to an F4. Maryland has recorded only two other F4s: a 1926 tornado that killed 17 people in La Plata, and another in 1998 that destroyed 30 homes in Frostburg.

At least one resident was around for both La Plata tornadoes. Irene B. Wood, 86, was watching television in her home last year when the skies darkened. She said the next day that it reminded her of the storm of Nov. 9, 1926, which killed 17, including her sister and 13 of her classmates.

La Plata didn't have its own hospital then, so many of the injured - including Wood's sister, who died en route - had to be transported to Washington.

"As a result of that, a hospital was built," Eckman said. "So I have to believe that because of that event - as tragic as it was for those kids - many other people have lived in the years since."

The trail of last year's damage spanned 650 yards, but remnants of the tornado were found much farther away. Bingo cards, divorce papers, bank receipts, tax documents - all were found by people on the other side of the Chesapeake Bay, some as distant as Lewes, Del., 100 miles away.

One of the storm's legacies has been a tendency for people to count their blessings and ponder the result if the tornado had followed an even more destructive path, said the Rev. Ed Voorhaar of the United Methodist Church, whose steeple was torn away and preschool wing destroyed. Repairs are nearly complete.

When people ask Voorhaar about the meaning of the tornado, he said he replies: "There are no simple theologic answers to complex questions. My feeling is that we live in God's world and these kinds of things occur. You learn that God is with people in the midst of their suffering."

There were close calls. The tornado veered around a senior citizens' apartment complex on heavily traveled U.S. 301, missing it by 50 yards. While the winds didn't spare the Archbishop Neale School, which was leveled, no one was in the building because it was a Sunday night. Pupils are being taught in temporary classrooms while a new schoolhouse is built.

Along with relief, there is lingering anxiety, to be sure. Children wail these days when the sounds of weather alert sirens send them fleeing to the nearest basement. During a false alarm last month, "I had 23 people in my basement with me," says townhouse owner Sherri Morton, 33.

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