- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
A devastating storm nearly destroyed a town 10 years ago, but plowed the ground for unprecedented cooperation and comity.
On the eve of the anniversary of the tornado that tore a 64-mile swath through Charles and Calvert counties and almost wiped out La Plata, what stands out the most for many who lived through it is the outpouring of help and working together that came together during the tornado’s aftermath and the subsequent rebuilding.
Saturday — April 28 — marks 10 years from the day when the F4 tornado struck, leading to five deaths and more than $100 million in property damage. Those killed were, in Charles County, William G. Erickson Jr., 51, of La Plata; Donald Hammonds Sr., 54, of La Plata; Phyllis Taylor, 72, of Waldorf; and, in Calvert County, Margaret Alvey, 74, and George Alvey, 68, of Prince Frederick.
“The main thing that I remember looking back is all the help we got. It was amazing how many people came in and helped. The city of [Washington, D.C.] had people coming in at 100 to 150 people at a time. We had trouble with getting out the trash, and they sent nine trash trucks to La Plata. The city of Baltimore sent us 17 pieces of equipment and 35 workers,” said Bill Eckman, La Plata’s mayor at the time of the tornado.
Eckman said that assistance came from several other jurisdictions, including state government, several counties, Ocean City and small towns on the Eastern Shore.
“It’s really amazing how everyone helped,” Eckman said.
According to “After the Storm Passed By,” written by Eckman and available on the town’s website, 27 jurisdictions ended up helping the town’s recovery.
The town received about $150,000 in county funds, $6.5 million in state funds and $1.2 million in federal funds, Eckman’s account states.
La Plata’s current mayor, Roy Hale, who was a councilman at the time, said he remembers that his first looks at La Plata after the tornado resembled a “war zone.” Once the damaged was assessed, however, the town bustled with help coming from everywhere, he said.
“We provided a ‘people’s place’ directly behind the courthouse where people who needed to receive help immediately could go there. It also gave an opportunity for people to assess their damage and see what they want to do with their buildings,” he continued.
Hale said the town was able to dump debris at a nearby location thanks to the state agreeing to a location at U.S. 301 and Turkey Hill Road. Previously, environmental concerns would have led debris to be shipped nearly 50 miles away, Hale said.
“We could not have done it alone; we could not have accomplished all we needed to do. ... It took many, many agencies,” Hale said.
“From the council’s perspective, one of the early concerns was that we did not want to lose the businesses we had. The businesses could not operate out of their current buildings,” he said, adding that businesses could have moved elsewhere, which would have been a grave wound to the town.
Hale said Facchina Group of Cos.’ founder Paul Facchina Sr. worked to build a temporary business park across from Facchina’s headquarters in La Plata for local businesses to operate until they could rebuild on their damaged properties.
Hale said that within a short period of time, Facchina “paved a parking lot, put in landscaping and opened up trailers for those businesses, and charged [as] rent whatever they could afford to pay. He provided businesses an opportunity to build back on their land before the tornado and operate [in the park] until the buildings were built.”
Hale said the town also put a support center in town hall for businesses and brought in support such as telephones, electronics, engineering and other services.
Looking back 10 years ago, Hale said that the town today has grown stronger than it was in 2002.
“We lost our only department store, and it was hard to purchase anything. That is not the case today. We have a strong commercial sector, much stronger than 10 years ago,” Hale said. He said that the people who rebuilt La Plata are much stronger than before and played a role in the town becoming a much stronger community than it was 10 years ago.
No way to go homeSeveral residents lost their homes, including town residents Nancy and Bill Borza.
Nancy Borza said that the couple was home when the tornado came through. They survived, but their house did not.
“We were lucky. We had neighbors who weren’t home who got back to their home demolished. They had a harder time. We were lucky to be alive. If you’ve been there, you can pretty much handle everything,” Borza said.
She said that she and her husband went through a great deal with their insurance company, as she said an agent’s mistake gave them only $110,000 to rebuild. Fortunately, the Borzas got what they needed to rebuild after hiring people to settle their case.
Borza said it took them a year and a half to rebuild their home due to the insurance problems.
In terms of immediate needs, “the Red Cross and Salvation Army helped out a lot. … They were here for us financially and emotionally,” Borza said, as they provided food trucks, gift cards for toiletries and other needs.
Local restaurants and Safeway helped out with food also, Borza said.
Borza also said that the local Amish community helped clear up people’s yards. The local Ironworkers union, of which her husband, Bill, is a member, and nurses from Andrews Air Force Base also helped.
“What stands out the most was the outpouring of help for us. It was wonderful. It was very heartwarming. We just have good people here,” Borza said. “We couldn’t have been in a better place. Everyone came together and got what we had to get done.”
Borza said she is saddened that many of the things she grew up with in La Plata are not there, but praised the rebuilding efforts.
“La Plata has rebuilt to become a nice community, a nice town, a welcoming town. I’ve liked what they have done to rebuild La Plata,” Borza said.
School’s outThe tornado destroyed much of the Archbishop Neale School building, but many groups and people got the school back on its feet.
ANS Principal Margaret Howard, who was vice principal at the time, remembers that after the tornado, St. Peter’s School in Waldorf and St. Mary’s School in Bryantown offered textbooks while the county board of education transportation department partnered with the school to provide transportation for arrivals and dismissals. Howard particularly thanked then-transportation director Santy DiSabatino for organizing and providing transportation services for the school.
“That was a true gift. Everyone came together,” Howard said.
The student population at first split to have school at First Baptist Church of La Plata and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in White Plains, Howard said, and then was subsequently moved to trailers at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in La Plata.
Howard said that representatives from the Archdiocese of Washington came down every week and also gathered builders and planners to discuss rebuilding with school officials.
“What made us strong was that everyone came together. People set up groups of ‘I’ll do this and I’ll do that.’ People were coming together for one reason — to get the school back into place for the students. In that regard it was a blessing,” Howard said.
Finally, on Jan. 27, 2004, faculty, staff and students moved back into the new Archbishop Neale School, Howard said.
The new school, built by Patuxent Architects, has 55,000 square feet, 20,000 square feet larger than the original school, and features a library and media center, full-size gymnasium and larger classrooms.
La Plata attorney Sue Greer said she was working with the Charles County Sheriff’s Office to coordinate the response effort between the sheriff’s office and the La Plata Police Department, and noted the professionalism and calm demeanor of emergency staff and the police force during the tornado and its aftermath.
Greer gave a lot of credit to public officials and entities working together to respond to the tornado that also struck portions of Hughesville, Benedict and parts of Calvert County.
“That’s the week we earned all our salaries,” former county commissioners’ president Murray Levy said.
He said the first two nights were absolutely frightening, as he thought that hundreds of people were killed from the tornado.
“I thought it was a miracle that it was only three people [in Charles County who died during the tornado],” Levy said.
Levy said that the town took the lead in helping La Plata recover, but that the county set up a place for insurance companies to talk to residents.
Levy said of the aftermath, “It was both heartwarming and frightening. The whole county just pulled together for that period.”
Levy also noted former governor Parris N. Glendening’s appearance in the town two days after the tornado and also the assistance the state provided to clean up and rebuild.
“The big takeaway from that experience is that when people work together great things happen. There’s many we can accomplish if we don’t worry about who gets credit,” Levy said.
“Looking at La Plata, if you didn’t know about the tornado, you couldn’t imagine that it happened 10 years ago. There are no scars left. I give credit to the citizens that they desired to stay there. … La Plata’s a very robust community. I think that says a lot about the people of La Plata.”
Tornado events planned for Celebrate La Plata
Celebrate La Plata will be April 28. Civista Health Foundation’s 5K run/walk will be 8:30 a.m. Charles County Foursquare Church yard sale will be 9 a.m.-1 p.m., 1 Calvert St. The La Plata Garden Club will hold an open house at the Star Memorial Garden, commemorating tornado fatalities and suffering, 3 Firehouse St. Celebrate La Plata will be noon-5 p.m. at town hall, Queen Anne St. Charles County Bed Races and refreshments for sale. Meet and greet with the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs players. Tours of Title Professionals, an office that withstood the 2002 tornado, will be 1-3 p.m., 114 La Grange Ave. Archbishop Neale School will hold a “Big F4 Twist’r” fundraiser 3 p.m. in front of town hall. The school will try to break the world record for the number of people doing the twist. Donations of $10 are requested, but not required. Bed races will start at 3 p.m. The La Plata Police Department will hold an open house noon-5 p.m., 101 La Grange Ave., and the U.S. Navy Band Cruisers will perform at 7 p.m. Call 301-934-8421 or email email@example.com.
Archbishop Neale School gets ready to Twist
Archbishop Neale School in La Plata is doing the Twist this weekend in hopes of getting in the record books.
At 3 p.m. Saturday, the school is inviting people to do the twist at La Plata Town Hall during the town’s Celebrate La Plata event in order to break the Guinness World Records mark for number of people doing the twist dance simultaneously.
According to a press release from the Archdiocese of Washington, the record for the number of people doing the twist is 1,706 participants in Mount Airy, N.C. Also, the World Records Academy lists 2,158 participants in Mandan, N.D., according to the press release.
The school is hoping to register 2,400 people for the event, which people can do by calling the school at 301-934-9595. Donations collected through the event will go to charity.
Sue Greer, a La Plata attorney who is a parent involved in the school’s activities, said, “Rebuilding is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And that is why is I want everyone involved in the recovery and rebuilding effort to be out in the middle of La Plata dancing this Saturday.”
In addition, ANS has decided to do several events to remember the anniversary and rebuilding efforts with twist-themed activities.
Students will engage in several activities during the week such as a schoolwide Twister game, Painting With a Twist and Twisted Telephone.
The school’s annual gala and auction 6 p.m. Friday at the Jaycees center in Waldorf will feature pictures of the old school and rebuilding efforts, and express gratitude for the people who helped along the way.
“This week is full of activities along the theme of twisting. It’s a happy thing. We’re trying to look back and be grateful with what we have. So much came out of the tornado. We are very, very blessed,” ANS Principal Margaret Howard said.
PAUL S. WARNER