- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 8, 2002

LA PLATA, Md. Using yellow Post-It notes as name tags, teachers and students from the destroyed Catholic school in La Plata yesterday packed into the cultural center of a Mormon Church and the new Sunday school facility of a Baptist church to finish out the school year.
"For our first day, things were not too bad," said Sister Helene Fee, prinicipal of the 552-student, pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade Archbishop Neale School in La Plata, which was completely destroyed in last week's deadly tornado. Sister Fee spent much of the day answering questions from teachers and students, and shuttled back and forth between two locations where they will spend the 21 days remaining until summer vacation.
Students in pre-kindergarten and sixth through eighth grades will be housed in the Mormon Church's cultural center in White Plains, while kindergarten through fifth-grade students will be in the First Baptist Church's Sunday school building, six miles down the road in La Plata. No definitive plans have been made about what will happen to the students next year.
"Let's try to dismiss in silence at least give it a go, " Sister Fee told a teacher who walked into her makeshift office inside the Mormon facility to ask about dismissal plans.
Ministers at both the Mormon and the Baptist facilities said they wanted to help the Catholic school students because that is what members of the faith community do for one another in times of need.
"In a disaster like this, we as ministers see the members of our community as not just the members of our congregation, but our nonmembers alike," said Brother Destin W. Hogue, a second counselor in the bishopric of the Morman church. "We play ball with all these kids, and we felt it was a good thing to do."
The Rev. Bill Miller, pastor of the First Baptist Church in La Plata, agreed.
"We see a need for education for our children. Even though they are not of the same faith, it doesn't really matter" Mr. Miller said. "For them to lose the rest of the year because of the tornado would be very unfortunate. We believed in our heart it was the right thing to do."
The First Baptist Church's Sunday school facility was scheduled to be completed in the coming weeks, but after the tornado, Mr. Miller asked the inspectors to speed up the approval process, so they could offer the building to the Catholic school for use.
"It's still not exactly finished, but we figured the need was bigger than the little things that needed to be fixed," he said.
For students, parents and teachers, the day felt much like the first day of the school year, except the date was different. Parents began lining up outside the cultural center parking lot an hour before the 1:30 p.m. dismissal. Some had cameras in hand to take pictures of the memorable day.
It was a day that gave students a chance to catch up with teachers and friends they had not seen since the storm. For Adrianna Gutrick, 10, a fifth-grader, this meant learning that her artwork, which had been hanging in Brent Hall of the old Archbishop Neale School, had been found nearly 100 miles away across the Chesapeake Bay in Trappe, Md.
"That's incredible," she said.
And as with any first day, there was confusion where to park, when to allow the students to go to the cars and what to do.
"Where is my father," asked sixth-grader Tiffany Mooring, 12, as she waited for her ride after school. Tiffany said the day was "kind of weird because the students did not have textbooks and felt crammed at times in the small rooms."
Sean Anderson, a 12-year-old seventh-grader, said while the resources were limited, it was still good to be back to school.
"It was nice to be back because it was different," he said. "Everything is about the same [as it was at the Archbishop Neale School], but we just have to look at things differently. But it's OK."
Ursula Yateman, a middle-school teacher at Archbishop Neale, said, "The students were really cooperative, and we are just trying to make everything as normal as possible. They are still the same good kids, and they know what they need to do."
Amy Murphy, who was waiting in the cultural center parking lot for two of her three sons, said: "We are thrilled to have the children back in school. We tried to have them study last week, but it was more like a vacation."
Like many ANS families, the Murphy children were split between the two centers, and parents had to rush out of the White Plains school to get to the La Plata school in time for dismissal 15 minutes later.
Happy Campbell of King George, Va., has three children in the Mormon facility, one in the Baptist facility where she is working at a health clinic, and two older children in high school in Virginia. Mrs. Campbell said the inconvenience of two separate schools is negligible considering what could have been a tragic situation had the students been in the school.
"It's a sacrifice, but it's good to have them back to school," Mrs. Campbell said.
The National Weather Service yesterday downgraded the tornado from an F5, the most powerful, to an F4, and said it had wind speeds of up to 260 mph. The tornado produced damage consistent with less-powerful storms before reaching its peak strength in downtown La Plata, said John Ogren, who led the assessment team.
A preliminary assessment rated the twister an F5 on the Fujita scale. Mr. Ogren said only 2 percent of all tornadoes are rated F4 or F5, but they cause 70 percent of tornado-related deaths nationwide. A National Weather Service team looked at the damage to buildings before downgrading last month's tornado.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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