- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 2, 2002

LA PLATA, Md. The sign for Archbishop Neale School on Port Tobacco Road leans up against a wire fence that cordons off the school grounds, prohibiting even the school's principal from entering. Above the sign, however, is a more poignant one hand-made by a young child.

"Dear god Help Us rise Again," the sign reads, with a drawing of what the school used to look like before Sunday's tornado destroyed it.

For days, neighboring communities have reached out to help La Plata and monetary help is on the way.

Yesterday, President Bush declared three counties ravaged by a powerful tornado over the weekend disaster areas, making residents and business owners there eligible for federal assistance.

Mr. Bush issued the declaration after inspectors from the Federal Emergency Management Agency surveyed the damage yesterday.

Residents and businesses in Calvert, Charles and Dorchester counties who were affected by the storm are now eligible for low interest loans.

"We are very appreciative that President Bush has acted so quickly to offer assistance," said Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who asked Mr. Bush for the declaration.

Hundreds of homes and businesses were either damaged or destroyed by the powerful tornado that ripped through Charles and Calvert counties Sunday night, killing three persons and injuring around 100. The tornado also caused damage in Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore.

Preliminary damage reports by the state ranged around $100 million in Calvert, Charles and Dorchester counties, but Mr. Glendening said Tuesday those estimates were conservative.

La Plata suffered the worst damage, and members of the Archbishop Neale School are wondering where they will be next week and even next year.

The school, which has 556 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade, was scheduled to close June 7.

"We don't know what we are going to do yet," said Sister Helene Fee, the school's principal. "We are going to have to decide soon, but we may just decide that [for this year] we are finished."

Archbishop Neale opened in 1927 the year after La Plata was hit by a tornado that knocked down the schoolhouse, killing more than a dozen children. All that remains is a portion of the new brick annex completed three years ago and a lone basketball post with its net and backboard still standing.

The school is run by the Archdiocese of Washington, which has not yet decided what to do.

Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said plans for the school should be finalized soon, perhaps as early as today. The diocese is looking into various options, she said, including working with Charles County, other faith groups and "anyone that we can find."

"Keeping the students together, as much as possible, is our top priority," Ms. Gibbs said. "That is hard with 556 students, but we are going to do our best."

Over the past few days, students, teachers and parents have been walking to the school to see what they can do to help. Some bring sandwiches for Sister Fee, who sits outside the barbed-wire fence watching, often reminding workers to take a break.

Three days after the fiercest tornado in Maryland history leveled the school, teachers and students can do little more than stare at the rubble that was once familiar classrooms and hallways.

"I feel completely helpless," said Cara Johnson, a music teacher. "My neighbor told me the school was hit, but I don't think anyone imagined anything like this."

Third-grade teacher Jennifer Gay said it was especially tough because students consider a school a haven.

"A school is like a second home," she said. "It's a nurturing place where you always go. But no matter what happens, we will do our best to make sure that the kids feel as safe as possible."

The school suffered the kind of crazy-quilt pattern of destruction visible all over town: though the building was demolished, the fish in Mrs. Gay's classroom survived, as did a lizard in Cathy Robinson's first-grade class.

It was a hopeful sign for the teachers and students, who are anxious to get back to school their own school.

"We want to get it rebuilt," said seventh-grader John Bellezza, 13. "And maybe if they rebuild it, they can build us a gym since we did not have a gym, even though our gym teacher made it really cool inside Brent Hall where we could play indoor soccer."

Brent Hall, which also served as a cafeteria, is gone. In its place now are dozens of insurance trucks and the debris from fallen trees.

"I want to come back here," said Kelsi Ward, 10, a fifth-grader. "The teachers are nice here, and I don't know what other teachers would be like."

Sister Jane Duke lives in the convent with Sister Fee. She said students both past and present are determined to save the school.

"I had one young man, who is not even married yet, come up to me and tell me the other day that his children will come here," Sister Duke said. "And then I had another student, I think he was about 6, come up and say to me, 'Sister, the important thing is that we are all all right, the school will be OK.' And he is right."

Less than two miles away at Milton M. Somers Middle School, Principal Joseph Warfield was busy yesterday afternoon preparing for his school to reopen today.

The school, built in 1965, was not damaged in the storm but is on the site where the school destroyed in the 1926 tornado once stood.

A plaque just inside Somers Middle School reminds students, teachers and visitors that the school is dedicated to the children who died on Nov. 9, 1926, when they could not escape that twister's path.

"Our children walk by that plaque every day, and they are aware of it," Mr. Warfield said from his office, which now overlooks the devastation to homes less than a quarter-mile away.

Mr. Warfield said many of his students more than 1,000 in grades 6 through 8 plan to start a fund for families affected by the storm.

"After September 11, we collected over $2,000 for disaster relief efforts, and I know they want to help again," he said.

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