- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 27, 2003

LA PLATA, Md. It became the roofing of necessity in La Plata: blue tarps lashed over holes, a thin plastic barrier keeping rain off whatever people could salvage of their homes, their business and their lives.
"Somehow or another, everyone in town ended up with blue tarping," said Thomas Mudd, who had several big sheets covering what was left of his law firm. "When you saw someone's blue tarp go down, you'd say, 'I guess they've settled with the insurance company'."
A few blue tarps remain a year after a freak tornado plowed up La Plata's main street, chewing through the town's heart, creating the jumbles of random waste splintered homes, personal effects and tree parts that only 200-mile-per-hour winds can.
Construction crews crawl over half-finished buildings, sturdier structures that replaced rows of trailers that replaced destroyed shops and offices. Residents have patched roofs or pulled down splintered homes to rebuild.
Like many small towns devastated by acts of nature, La Plata banded together, pledging to rise again. Mayor Bill Eckman said the destruction accelerated a plan to redesign downtown. Spray-painted signs reading, "We'll be back" went up on damaged homes.
Most residents say they have recovered from the trauma of losing their homes, their possessions, their sense of security and in a few cases their loved ones. People say they're looking to the future and don't think much about that terrifying Sunday evening a year ago.
But a closer look reveals some empty patches downtown where longtime business owners decided to abandon their buildings. And people will talk, often in hushed tones, about how they are still deeply affected by the tornado. Some were spooked when the tornado siren newly installed in the courthouse yard went off a month ago. Everyone ran for shelter, said Sister Helene Fee, who is the head of Archbishop Neale School.
"Once you've been through it, you know what it can do," she said. "It's like being in a car accident. You're always putting your foot on the brakes afterward."
Teachers say it's the students, often the youngest ones, who think the most about the storm. Students think strong winds mean a tornado is coming, and they sometimes draw little tornados in the margins of papers, said gym teacher Scott Farren.
Patti Lockrow has seen a change in her 12-year-old son, Kyle. He used to spread out his homework every night on the kitchen table, she said. Now, he's too worried to work above ground.
"He huddles in the basement when he does his homework and watches the Weather Channel all the time," she said.
Tornadoes are rare in Maryland but not unheard of. La Plata was hit by a twister that swept away an elementary school, killing 13 in 1926. But few people were on the lookout the evening of April 28, 2002.
National Weather Service meteorologists noticed a storm passing over West Virginia that they called a "supercell," meaning it had the potential to produce a tornado. A relatively weak tornado dropped to the ground after the storm crossed into Charles County, but it had winds strong enough to rip the roof off a house near Pisgah.
The tornado moved on at nearly a mile a minute, growing in intensity. It ripped up Archbishop Neale, flattening the recreation hall as Sister Helene and Sister Jane Duke huddled in the convent next door.
It hit its peak in downtown La Plata. Meteorologists say the winds reached speeds of at least 207 mph and that the storm may have spawned more than one tornado at that point.
A KFC was ripped off its foundation. A half block up the street, Posey's market was blown away. The town water tower fell, its steel legs twisted.
Several low-level office buildings were chewed up, including a 100-year-old building that housed Mr. Mudd's firm. Across the street, the back of Old Flower Branch, Patsy Benson's flower shop, caved in.
The tornado crossed the train tracks, blew through a cluster of Victorian homes and headed out to newer developments on the outskirts of town. It flopped William and Susan Erickson's nearly finished house down on them, killing Mr. Erickson.
The tornado eventually moved through Calvert County before losing steam over the Chesapeake Bay. The storm caused five deaths and $120 million in damage, much of it in La Plata. Most buildings downtown were either destroyed or damaged.
In some ways, Mr. Eckman says, the tornado was a blessing. It sped up the planned makeover of a downtown filled with two-story redbrick buildings that evoke images of a quaint Southern Maryland county seat.
Business owners say the new building codes are strict. Rebuilt structures have to be at least two stories tall, and a gas station was forced to move a garage to the side, away from the main street.
Mr. Eckman said he's heard some grumbling about the regulations but that the tornado was the best chance to turn La Plata into a destination for residents and visitors.
"We saw a tragedy, but we also saw an opportunity, and we're making the best of it," he said.

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