- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 7, 2002

On one side of Route 5 in Hughesville, Md., three middle-aged ladies sit chilling in the balmy breeze and enjoying their cigarettes and conversation from plastic lawn chairs. On the other side of the four-lane roadway, two dozen tornado troopers are huffing and puffing and scrapping and raking as they remove dead limbs, drywall and debris strewn around a pile of matchsticks that once was a home.
The juxtaposition is jolting.
Tractors, saws and sighs of relief are deafening as you drive along the path of the F5 tornado that hit Southern Maryland a week ago. Every which way you turn, it's as if someone rewound the videotape. In some places, you can literally see the half-mile path the tornado took by the line of broken timber and collapsed roofs it toppled in its terror.
Water the colder the better is the hottest commodity to be had, even among the children, said one church rescue worker hauling beverages on the back of a golf cart.
No way that the news footage can capture nature's nastiness in these parts. The sight of sheets of metal stuck around stripped trees blows your hair back.
That only five persons lost their lives in the wake of this storm is truly unbelievable.
"Your brain shuts down to tunnel vision and doesn't let you take it all in," said La Plata homeowner Rick Wallace as he carted useless household effects to a mound of twigs covering his curb. "It's only now coming to me in snapshots."
Sgt. Craig Stillwell, who was on a bike patrolling one La Plata neighborhood, said, "You look at it on TV and look at pictures in the newspapers, but until you see it first hand, you don't realize it's devastating."
So Saturday, broadcaster Jerry Phillips of Clear Channel and a fellow panelist on WRC-TV's (Channel 4) "Reporter's Notebook" invited me to tag along in his pickup truck as he went to check on his Eagle Harbor cottage that's nestled along the Patuxent River. Fortunately for him, the storm veered south and he only suffered a waterlogged trunk where he stores grilling gear on the deck.
We headed across the causeway crossing the Patuxent into Calvert County, where we met Scott and Christine Nance of Barstow, about 12 miles east of La Plata.
The Nances' home was once nestled amid a forested, hidden haven. Now, on a splinter of wood where one of 40 mighty tall trees once stood, the words "615 Nance, est. 1983" are written.
"Gone with the wind," said Mr. Nance of his cherished woods. His good humor is commendable, given that one tree landed on his house roof, another on his garage roof and a third missed the front door by less than a foot.
"We're glad we made it through, but it hurts that we'll never see this lot like it was again in our lifetime," he said. The Nances pointed out that they bought wood to heat their home rather than cut down their trees. And the chopped wood now? It'll come in handy somehow. After all, he's a carpenter.
Here we see where "family comes through in a big way," said Mrs. Nance, who was moved to tears about being surrounded by a close neighbor, brothers, brothers-in-law, a daughter and four sisters.
As two-year-old Seth played in a makeshift sand pile, her sister, Vicki, pulled on work gloves. "Now I'm ready to work," she said. Another sister, Robin, climbed aboard a tractor to collect twigs. A third sister planted pansies on the porch "to cheer me up."
Shortly after Dennis Bragg of nearby Bryantown arrived wearing a cap denoting "Church of Christ Relief Worker" and offered a box of food. He had been driving for miles down the road "just following the path of the tornado" to deliver aid where needed.
Members of Boy Scout Troop 144 were also among the many tornado troopers volunteering during this definitely different spring cleaning drive. Devin Guerra, Sean Kennedy, Justin Fiore and twins Christian and Jonathan Forest spent a "cool" afternoon cleaning out debris from an elderly woman's home.
"Lots of people down here need work, and when something like this blows by your house, you have compassion to help someone else," said Christian, who helped organize his troop's project.
"It shows good initiative," said Scout leader Mike Guerra of his small band from Hughesville, Waldorf and Indian Head.
A frantic Estel Giles of Northwest Washington was walking and running the length of La Plata searching for his Jehovah's Witness friends.
"The people who come just can't do enough for you," said Mr. Wallace. "I moved down here 16 years ago, and I thought I was leaving my hometown. Now I know I moved to a hometown. There's just incredible help."
Traffic creeped along Route 488 crammed with camera-wielding curiosity seekers. In fact, Sgt. Stillwell was patrolling specifically "to make sure people aren't back here that don't belong."
Some homes bear orange insurance markers, others mighty messages written in big letters on scattered remains: "We'll Be Back," "We Will Rebuild" and "I survived F5, thank God."
Back along Route 231 is a different sort of poignant plea: "Please don't take pictures of our home."
La Plata's mayor is asking gawkers to go away. Unless you are there to help or work or deliver supplies, he says, please honor this respectful request.
Indeed, this tornado's torture is a sight behold.
But the overriding impression you come away with is that neighbor is really pitching in to help neighbor in Southern Maryland, that family has bonded closer to family. All are thankful. These are not wealthy people. More often than not they appear either working class or working poor.
While many of them will make do, they may never fully recover.


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