- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 22, 2002

LA PLATA, Md. The sign outside the La Plata United Methodist Church perfectly sums up the feeling of this small town: "We all have much to be thankful for."
"Life goes on," says the Rev. Edward M. Voorhaar, the pastor. "People are very positive. The tornado has affected all our lives this year, [but] we are very grateful."
Like so much in La Plata, the church was heavily damaged in the April tornado that caused more than $100 million in property damage. Gone were the steeple, sanctuary and education hall.
But the sanctuary already has been rebuilt and redecorated with candles and banners well in time for Christmas. And the hall should be ready for Easter.
"There is just a spirit of joy," Mr. Voorhaar says.
La Plata residents James Walker and his wife also are grateful.
The Walkers' home was all but destroyed, and they have no idea when the repairs will be done, but Mr. Walker says he is just glad nobody was inside when the tornado hit.
April 28 was an unusually muggy day for this small Southern Maryland town of 6,500, although residents still enjoyed their time outside taking walks and planting spring flowers.
All that changed by 6:30 p.m.
The clouds grew darker, the winds picked up. Then a sound like a train could be heard approaching the little town, which lies about an hour south of the District. Only this was not a train; it was what would become a category F4 tornado.
"I was shaving and about to get into the shower when my neighbor came running around, yelling, 'A tornado is coming. A tornado is coming,'" recalls Larry Norton, 55. "I had never been in one before so I figured I had a few minutes. The next thing I knew, glass was breaking and we just ran."
The foundation of the Nortons' Cape Cod-style home was intact afterward, but the rest of the house had been swept up and deposited nine feet away.
"I thought for sure we were dead," says Liz Norton, 62.
Eight months later, the Nortons are settling into their renovated home.
Residents of La Plata are not only happy to be alive, they are determined to rebuild and become stronger.
"I am most thankful that we did not pull bodies from all the homes and buildings that were destroyed," Mayor William Eckman says. "If you had told me that night we would not pull anyone out of all that destruction, I would not have believed you."
The tornado claimed two: William G. Erickson, 51, who died when his house collapsed, and Donald Hammonds, 54, who was found dead in his car, apparently of a heart attack.
Three others died when a second tornado touched down in Calvert County, on the other side of the Patuxent River.
Even eight months later, residents are amazed that the number of deaths was not higher, considering more than 30 died in tornados that hit the Midwest six weeks earlier.
To rebuild, but how?
For years, La Plata officials had discussed revitalizing the town, but when the tornado struck those plans became urgent.
The Town Council recently agreed to remake La Plata with more walkways and tree-lined streets. And the council intends to put a "Welcome to La Plata" sign in the heart of town, where U.S. Route 301 meets Maryland Route 6.
"We want to develop a pedestrian-friendly sort of community," Mr. Eckman says. "We want more retail shops and specialized stores downtown so that people have a reason to come to La Plata, as opposed to just driving through."
But the plans have been met with resistance from some residents who think the town's priorities are askew.
Cliff Carey says that although nearby Waldorf added shops and trees along Route 301, he is "hard-pressed to get the boulevard feel when driving 50 to 60 miles per hour" along that highway.
He thinks the mayor and other town officials instead should widen traffic lanes and limit trucks from hauling products along Route 301 to the District and beyond.
"It's nice to have beautiful landscaping, but we also have to move traffic," says Mr. Carey, 50. "The heavy haulers and the municipal waste contractors drive so fast, and they don't care who is on the road. They need their own lanes or they are going to run the rest of us off the road."
Indeed, almost everyone at a recent town meeting agreed that La Plata needs a bypass.
Mr. Eckman says such a road, starting south of town on Route 6 and looping around it, will be built within the next few years. However, the mayor says, such projects are expensive and Maryland faces a $1.7 budget shortfall.
"Oh yeah, I am worried," Mr. Eckman says. "But I think this financial crisis will be temporary."
Shareese N. DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., declined to comment on specific plans for La Plata, but said residents "would not suffer as a result of the state's financial problems."
A slow return
Other residents say the rebuilding process is too slow. They also say too many buildings remain uninhabitable and some merchants are not returning.
Ed Myer, 59, a lawyer, has had to buy a cell phone for the first time because his office no longer exists. The building he plans to move into is still months from being ready.
"You take an aerial shot of this town, look at it today, then look at it the day after the tornado. Nothing has really changed," he says. "It should not be this slow."
Mr. Eckman tells residents that Rome was not built in a day, and La Plata can't be either.
"People forget that it took 100 years to build La Plata to the way it was," the mayor says. "You can hardly expect the town to be back to normal in seven months."
Still, new businesses, including the Charles Street Bakery, are springing up around town.
Deborah Jones, the owner, signed a lease less than a month before the tornado. She could not move in and open the bakery until late October.
Her shop, which sells fresh breads, muffins, and to-die-for oatmeal cookies and peanut-butter-chocolate brownies, is in the heart of La Plata.
"The community has been great," Mrs. Jones says. "The only thing that was weird was they all expected doughnuts. We had to tell them we don't make doughnuts."
Echoes of the past
Until April, no other storm on record had compared to the one that ripped through the area on Nov. 9, 1926.
That earlier unexpected storm known only as "the tornado" took almost an identical path as the April storm. It destroyed the town's two-room schoolhouse and killed 17 persons, including 13 schoolchildren.
Frances Lorenz Winkler, then a second-grader, recalls the day as being unusually warm. Her younger sister, Harriet, had wanted to tag along to school with her.
Mrs. Winkler, 82, said terrified students ran to the teacher's desk as the wind started howling and the clouds grew darker. And when the schoolhouse imploded from the pressure drop, students were thrown like matchsticks, including some who landed in ditches and trees.
Mrs. Winkler's injuries were minor, but she found 5-year-old Harriet naked and bleeding. A piece of plywood was embedded in her skin. The girls walked almost a mile to reach home and tell their mother that the wind knocked over the flagpole, and the flagpole knocked down the school.
"I had never heard of the word 'tornado,'" Mrs. Winkler recalls. "As far as I was concerned it was just the wind. I did not realize the seriousness of it."
Harriet was taken to a hospital in the District, where she recovered after several weeks. But when school started the next fall, her big sister attended Sacred Heart, a new Catholic school in La Plata.
"We are Catholic," Mrs Winkler says. "So I guess my parents just thought it would be a good thing to do."
Sacred Heart had just 26 students when it opened the next year, in part because of the tornado. By 1952, administrators added another building to accommodate increasing enrollment and renamed the school Archbishop Neale.
After the April tornado, all that remained of the 75-year-old school were a few sections of classrooms. Students attended classes at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in nearby White Plains or at First Baptist Church of La Plata.
'We are blessed'
Today, roughly 500 students have returned, but the school is only a row of trailers in the Sacred Heart Church parking lot about a mile away from what remains of their school.
"We only have 30 less students than last year," School Board President Paul Skeens announced at a September groundbreaking. "It is a testament to the outstanding reputation of the school."
The 27 trailers are connected, with the exception of the kindergarten and offices for the principal and nurse. Inside, the school looks like any other, complete with pictures on the walls and signs on the doors.
"We have a better selection of books now, and our desks are more comfortable, but I am thankful that we have a school at all," says fifth-grader Jeffrey Pappainni, 10.
Sister Helene Fee, the principal, says the school has received incredible support from the community.
"We have enough school supplies to last us throughout the year," she says. "The good Lord has taken care of us, and we are very blessed."
Sister Fee says students are likely to be in their makeshift school though next Christmas; then they will move into new buildings on the old site.
"It will be nice when we get back there because the little ones have no playground equipment," the principal says. "They all miss their monkey bars and swings."
Knowing how they feel
For many in La Plata, the TV images of tornado damage several weeks ago in the Midwest and Thursday in Newton, Miss., were stark reminders.
"I could relate to what they were going through because what we saw on TV was so similar to what we saw here, and still see here," Mr. Walker says. "Though to me it was normal because once you experience something like that, it cannot surprise you when you see it somewhere else."
Mr. Norton and others credit the Amish for helping them quickly get back on their feet.
Members of the Amish community of Southern Maryland spent many hours helping residents cut down trees, work on their roofs and clean debris. They would not take money or food. Many were shy and just went about their business.
During La Plata Appreciation Day in July, Mr. Eckman announced that the town was donating money to an Amish medical fund as part of an effort to say thank you.
"So many people asked about what they could do to thank them," the mayor said at the time. "But [the Amish community] would not take anything. We have reason to believe they will accept this because they do not have medical insurance and their funds have been depleted."
The following week, he presented a check for $1,500.
"They kept saying, 'We don't want this. We don't need this,'" Mr. Eckman recalls. "And I just kept repeating that we wanted to give it to you, so please take it. Eventually they did, but very reluctantly."
Residents say they also received enormous help from all over the state and elsewhere.
In July, the town honored volunteers, who were presented with plaques.
"This is nice that they wanted to thank everyone, but I really did not expect this," said Kevin Hackett, who works for the Department of Public Works in Easton.
'Oh no, not again'
One of the loudest complaints during the cleanup was that no alarm system had signaled the impending danger. Most residents just went inside their homes and into their basements because of the clouds and the wind.
Those who were watching television knew something was happening, but nobody predicted the tornado would hit La Plata.
As a result, Charles County installed and paid for an alarm system at a cost of about $17,000. It's unlikely many town residents thought they would hear the alarm sounded anytime soon.
"Oh no, not again," Mr. Eckman thought to himself while out walking shortly before 7 a.m. on Nov. 11, Veterans Day.
The storms that battered the Midwest rolled over Southern Maryland in the morning hours. And when the National Weather Service made the announcement, the new warning system let everyone know they had to run for cover.
"This is a tornado warning," a voice over the loudspeakers said. "Get to cover immediately. Do not delay."
"I kind of knew what it was saying, but I did not want to know what it was," Mrs. Norton says. "We just went to the corner in the basement because that is where we were supposed to go and wait."
The Nortons had moved into their new home two days earlier.
"The last time, I took my flashlight and rosary and ran to the basement," Mrs. Winkler says. "This time I just ran. I just trusted in the Lord. I figured He's looked after me this long, He'd keep doing that, so I didn't need the rosary."
It was a false alarm. Instead of a twister, only rain and moderate wind hit the area. But one tornado this year was enough for La Plata.
"I really hope we never have to hear it again," Mr. Eckman says.

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