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Twister strikes heart of town

BY SUSAN KIM | LA PLATA, MD | April 30, 2002

"It's the kind of thing that, when you see it on TV, it isn't as bad. But when you're standing here looking at it, it's awful."

—Earl Taylor

They milled the sidewalks of their devastated town, many waiting for news on their own homes, others offering comfort to neighbors.

La Plata residents were allowed back into neighborhoods late Monday afternoon. Many of them saw they had nothing left.

The F5 tornado -- the highest classification on the tornado scale and Maryland's strongest tornado in 75 years -- flattened homes, churches, and businesses La Plata families thought were permanently part of their lives.

Emergency management officials still didn't have an idea Monday afternoon exactly how many homes were damaged or destroyed. But large sections of the town are simply blown away.

Many struggled Monday simply to drive a few miles to the closest undamaged store. Monday morning it took vehicles two hours to negotiate the few miles in or out of town.

B.A. Koehn of the Calvert County sheriff's office said unaffiliated volunteers from out of town who don't yet have a role were jamming the road. Snarled in the traffic Monday were electrical repair trucks, ambulances, demolition crews, and other emergency cleanup vehicles.

"They have people down here sightseeing," he added. And indeed scores of people lined the sidewalks taking photos, some of them pushing babies in strollers over downed power lines and debris.

Residents stood alongside them, trying to come to terms with the rubble that once was the heart of town.

La Plata resident Earl Taylor said he saw golf ball-size hail, then what sounded like a freight train. "It lasted a good four or five minutes," he said.

Taylor's home was unscathed but five houses on his street were nearly demolished. He was headed up the hillside with work gloves Monday afternoon, trying to help his neighbors dig out what they could.

And he's no stranger to disasters. Taylor, a landscape inspector, was working at the Pentagon when the jet crashed into it on Sept. 11. "The roar of the plane, now the roar of the tornado."

He said the devastation in La Plata, like the Pentagon wreckage, is worse when you see it firsthand. "It's the kind of thing that, when you see it on TV, it isn't as bad. But when you're standing here looking at it, it's awful."

Taylor stood for a moment in the heart of downtown, pointing to the CVS pharmacy, Safeway grocery store, KFC restaurant -- all essentially demolished.

"It's going to take a long while to recover from this," he said. "And I pray this is it."

The storm claimed three lives and injured nearly 100 people. A warning of a severe storm with possible tornado was issued at 6:45 p.m., and it was upgraded to a tornado warning about 15 minutes later. Some eight minutes after that the tornado hit.

It's the strongest tornado in the state in 75 years, according to the National Weather Service. Many old-timers in La Plata remember a tornado some 80 years ago about five miles south of La Plata. "It was in 1926, and it hit a school, and many children were killed," remembered the Rev. William Kilson, Sr., pastor at Zion Baptist Church.

Kilson and other local pastors were out trying to minister to their community, offering prayers and simply listening to stories of survival and loss.

National denominational disaster response groups responded immediately to what officials said will become a federally declared disaster. The United Methodist Committee on Relief responded after it received a request for an emergency response grant.

The United Methodist Church and Christ Episcopal Church in La Plata were among the sanctuaries that were badly damaged.

The Sacred Heart Catholic Church lost its affiliated school, the Archbishop Neale School. La Plata resident Victor Zangla came out of a special service offered at Sacred Heart downtown Monday afternoon reflecting on how La Plata's churches were already reaching out to each other. "Our pastor offered our church to several Protestant churches here that were so damaged nobody can go in them. I think we're going to have ecumenical services for awhile."

Zangla's wife, Irene, was working with the local chapter of Catholic Charities to serve food to rescue personnel. "We're working out of people's homes because our local Catholic Charities building lost power."

The American Red Cross is set up at an emergency command center, offering shelter and meals for tornado survivors.

Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening declared Calvert and Charles counties state disaster areas Monday. Senators Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes toured the devastated areas Monday, pledging to support Glendening's efforts to get federal aid for the area.

For now, however, it was neighbors helping neighbors, commented La Plata resident Carolyn Lees. Lees checked in at the command center early Monday morning and found out the rescue workers needed food. "So we got hot dogs, snacks, cheese and crackers, coffee and sodas."

Lees was standing on one side of the road leading into La Plata, which at the time was blocked by emergency vehicles. "I'm trying to figure out how to get across the street."

Lees urged people who wanted to volunteer to check in at the coordination center before just showing up. "People here are in a state of shock. They don't know what you can do to help them yet. They're trying to pull their things out of their wrecked homes. It's personal."

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