- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2003

LA PLATA, Md. The Kahala family, like many others in this small Southern Maryland town, lost almost everything in a powerful tornado a year ago but decided to stay.
"How do you leave when your whole life is out in your front yard?" asked Sharon Kahala, 49, who with husband Rogers lost their home.
Mrs. Kahala said decisions, including whether to stay, have been difficult.
The couple slept in their truck for two nights after the April 28, 2002, tornado. The two-story house is now a rancher with a basement.
The tornado struck with little warning shortly after 7 p.m. on a day much like yesterday with the sun shinning and some humidity.
Mrs. Kahala said the destruction lasted for as long as it took her to shout her husband's name three times.
"It was only 20 seconds probably," she said. "But it was scary."
Mrs. Kahala said she retired in February from her job at the nearby College of Southern Maryland because the tornado taught her the value of life.
"That made me realize what matters most because when you are alive, all that extra stuff you can buy with the extra income, is really just stuff," she said. "I have two grandchildren in Pennsylvania, and I want to spend time with them and just be home more. That's what matters most."
When the tornado was over, five persons had died, there was more than $100 million in damage, and countless homes and businesses were destroyed.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. attended yesterday's events and spent much of his time with his Cabinet and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele touring the area and examining the reconstruction.
In the afternoon, he took part in a ceremony celebrating the community's indomitable spirit.
"We are here to commemorate a terrible storm," said Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, before a standing-room-only crowd at the Charles County Government Center. "But we are also here for the revitalization. This community has turned out more beautifully than we could have ever envisioned."
Said Mr. Steele: "This is all due to the love and commitment to a place you all call home."
Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan also attended the anniversary ceremony. Montgomery County emergency response teams were among the first on the scene last year.
"I was here the day after the tornado, and it is remarkable to see all the changes," said Mr. Duncan, a Democrat.
He also said that when his county was dealing with the area's sniper attacks one of the first calls he received was from Murray Levy, president of the Charles County commissioners.
The recovery process has been slow at Archbishop Neale School.
Students in the school for kindergarten through eighth grade now attend classes in trailers parked in a lot behind Sacred Heart Church. A new building is scheduled for completion by January, but Sister Helene Fee, the school principal, is just taking life one day at a time.
"This is now what we know and what the kids know," she said. "I am just so grateful the tornado struck on a Sunday night because if it had been any other night those rooms would have had people in them. And I hate to think of what would have happened. So you see, it's all really a blessing and makes you realize who is calling the shots."
Michele Freda agreed.
Mrs. Freda, 35, had survived cancer and was told by her doctors she should not have any more children after her eldest son, Angelo now 8 was born. But the tornado changed that.
"The tornado blew my birth control pills away, and the CVS was closed for a week, and before I knew it, I was pregnant," said a happy Mrs. Freda, holding her 2month-old son, Carlo Joseph.
"We would not have him if it weren't for that tornado. I even considered calling him Storm instead because he was born right around [the Presidents Day] blizzard. He is really such a blessing, our little tornado baby," said Mrs. Freda.
Since the tornado hit, the town has installed a new alarm system to warn residents when heavy weather is imminent.
Its sound and thunderstorms still put residents on edge.
"I am scared it will happen again," said Gayle, an employee at the newly renovated Dash-In convenience store in downtown La Plata who declined to give her last name. "It's not the same around here because the atmosphere is different. I've worked in this location for 17 years and I never expected a tornado. It's all still so surprising."
The Rev. Edward Voorhaar, pastor of the La Plata United Methodist Church, reminded those who gathered yesterday at the community service that disasters are like operations.
"You will recover from the surgery and become well," said Mr. Voorhaar, whose home and church were severely damaged by the storm. "But there is always going to be the scar to remind us of what happened."


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