MD marks tornado anniversary

A celebration may sound like a strange way to commemorate the anniversary of a major disaster.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | LA PLATA, Md. | May 1, 2003

"Whenever we're hit, whether it's Pearl Harbor, 9-11, a tornado you name it we come together."

—Gov. Robert Ehrlich

A celebration may sound like a strange way to commemorate the anniversary of a major disaster, but that's just what people here organized a year after an F4 tornado left this town of 6,500 in ruins.

The town of La Plata spent the weekend partying there was music, dancing and plenty of food. But on the afternoon and evening of April 28, hundreds of people gathered for more somber ceremonies, in order to pay tribute to the three people killed in Charles County by the storm, and to honor people who helped their town make a speedy recovery from the disaster.

The afternoon ceremony at the Charles County government building drew a crowd of more than 200 people, as well as Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich, in addition to his entire cabinet and Lt. Gov. Robert Steele.

Ehrlich and other speakers talked about the almost-miraculous recovery La Plata has made in the past year a process many speakers said actually accelerated the town's "vision plan," an attempt to create a more tourist-friendly downtown, by eliminating buildings that would have been difficult to assimilate into the plan.

Ehrlich told the audience that the comeback is indicative of a resilience and determination that is "not uniquely American" but "distinctively American."

"Whenever we're hit, whether it's Pearl Harbor, 9-11, a tornado you name it we come together," he said.

Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan echoed Ehrlich's notion that disaster and tragedy help bring out the best qualities in Americans.

"We are a great nation because we are a great people," Duncan said. "But what makes us so great is our generosity. We are the most generous people in history."

John Bohannon, representing Rep. Steny Hoyer's (D-Md.) office, said the tornado revealed La Plata's inner nature to the rest of the country.

"It took an incident like this to show the rest of the state and the rest of the nation what kind of town La Plata is," he said.

Others expressed astonishment at the way local and state agencies managed to cooperate in such effective manner in La Plata.

"I've been somewhat cynical about state government for the last eight years," said state legislator Van Mitchell. But this incident, he said, sort of changed his mind. "It was amazing to me to watch how state and county government can work together if they want to."

Awards for outstanding public service were also presented. One of the recipients, the Rev. James Powell of the Christian Family Baptist Church, was commended for his active involvement in recovery, which ranged from using his church to cook 1,700 meals a day for months following the tornado to providing counseling sessions for people psychologically traumatized by the disaster.

Powell's work continues today, and he said that in the last few weeks he has had volunteers come in from Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

La Plata Mayor William Eckman expressed thanks for the changes the tornado had brought about in speeches he gave at both ceremonies.

"We were all right because everyone was willing to do what needed to be done for the common good," said Eckman. "I just thank God for having the privilege to be the mayor of La Plata at this time."

A similar phenomenon occurred 76 years ago, he said, the last time La Plata was struck by a tornado. That time, 13 school children were killed, some of them partly because there was no hospital any where remotely near the small town. As a result of that tragedy, he said, a hospital was built nearby, which has saved countless lives.

"I hope that the Lord will do something just as good with this experience we've had here," he said.

The Rev. Powell provided the sermon for the ceremony, and he restoration of La Plata to the prophesy in the book of Revelation, which tells of the coming of "the new heaven and the new earth."

"We can't make the changes without destroying something that's old," Powell said.

This theme of regeneration was sounded again and again during both services, and was presented in its most miraculous form by local businesswoman Nancy Gasparovic.

Gasparovic found a Bible in the rubble of her ruined former business. It was bookmarked to the third chapter of the book of Ezra, which detailed the building of the temple in Jerusalem following the Jews Exodus from Egypt. Gasporvic found in the passage an omen for the future of La Plata.

La Plata's recovery will likely be sped along by the money it has managed to raise in the past year, as well as the help it has received from federal and state agencies and dozens of non-governmental organizations.

Part of town's official recovery fund has come from the sale of T-shirts that were on display at Monday's services.

The back of the shirt read, "We'll be back," a slogan that was echoed in a video presentation given at the afternoon ceremony.

The video, directed and conceived by Brian Donohue of Project Restore (one of the many groups trying to rebuild the town) concluded with an image of a battered La Plata home. On the facade of the building was spray-painted the "We'll be back" slogan in enormous red letters.

This shot then dissolved to the home as it is today, perfectly reconstructed and immaculate in every detail, the model of what residents here want for the rest of their town.

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