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Maryland Town Rebuilds After Devastating Tornado - 2002-05-11

When a killer tornado ripped through a small Maryland town 40 kilometers south of Washington nearly two weeks ago it demolished houses, sent automobiles flying, uprooted trees and turned much of the central business district into rubble.

The target of the storm was La Plata, population 6,500. The tornado, the second most powerful to ever hit the region - was responsible for approximately $120 million in property damages, five deaths and dozens of injuries. Digging out from the debris, repair and rebuilding of homes, schools and office buildings may take years. But, La Plata is determined to put itself back on the map.

"Can I get past you here without you running me down! How you folks doing?" asks La Plata Mayor Bill Eckman. "I appreciate that you are out here and [that you are] working like you are."

Every morning since the tornado hit early one Sunday evening, Mayor Eckman has taken a walk around town to talk with demolition crews and neighbors. Today he likes what he sees because the State Department of Transportation has sent a lot of help.

"It is my understanding that there are 300 pieces of equipment in town cleaning up the mess. As you see what happens is [that] the trucks go through here, clean up the mess and come back, and it looks like they've never been here because people drag everything out of the backyards and so forth," he says.

This is slow and tedious physical labor. Tree limbs are lifted into chopper machines and ground into wood chips on the spot. Streets like Oak Avenue - once a canopy of trees - are strangely open and barren.

Pat Brightwell has lived on Oak Avenue for 45 years. She is clearly shaken by the devastation, although her house remains standing.

"The back of it is pretty badly torn up. But we are very lucky we didn't loose that much in material things which doesn't matter anyway [because] we have our lives," she says. " And it's just mind boggling what you have to go through. I don't envy anybody to go through [this]. I wouldn't want them to have to [go through this."

SKIRBLE: "In the meantime where are you staying?"

"We're staying at the Hampton Inn [hotel] in Waldorf [Maryland," she answers. "They have put us up well. I have no complaints. Everybody has been really great."

Pat Brightwell and her neighbors live in hotels or with friends or relatives as they slowly put the pieces of their lives back together.

The town has turned an empty parking beside the Charles County Court House into a "People's Place," a collection of trailers and army tents that houses local, state and federal disaster relief services and relief charities like the Red Cross and Salvation Army.

This is where Donald Richards, holding his one-year-old son in his arms, asks for help to get his storm-damaged car repaired so that he can look for a job.

"I'm just trying to show them I need a car, some money, something," he explains.

SKIRBLE: "Can I take a look at the pictures?"

"Yeah, sure. This is just the front of the car where it got hit, lights crushed in, tires flat. Something hit the door pretty good, busted out all those windows right there," he says. "That's the back of it. All the windows are busted out."

Donald Richards has filed the paper work that would qualify him for a loan. Now he waits, and like others in town he is anxious to get to work.

Mayor Bill Eckman says the sense of urgency in La Plata is most keenly felt downtown, hardest hit by the storm. He wants to move forward on a new plan to revitalize the town - a plan developed before the tornado struck.

"People who have lost their business are anxious to get it back, right now. Income has stopped. They want to [rebuild] today," the mayor says. " And, I say, stop let's think about what we want to do. But they don't want to wait because they have lost their income. So, how do we take advantage of the opportunity to revitalize the downtown? Do we get back what we had before? We hope we are going to get back something a lot better. Will we? I don't know. We have a lot of pieces to put together to make that happen."

"We're standing in the main dining room and you can see that these windows were all smashed in. There were bits of trees and all kinds of debris, road debris and singles impaled in all the back walls and it scratched up and damaged a lot of this fine woodwork, " says Paul Bailes owner of "The Crossing at Casey Jones," a popular restaurant and bar located on the main street beside the railroad tracks. He and his wife Lisa say they are luckier than most. Their building suffered $500,000 in property damage, but can be repaired.

"My insurance, I'm told covers it all. And, it appears to be that it has started to do so," says Mr. Bailes.

"We had a customer who showed up with a bulldozer the first day and just parked it and said what can I scoop up? That assistance and intensity that first day is what provided us with the momentum for the rest of the week," adds Lisa Bailes. "While the rest of the town was still in chaos, we got rid of the rubble and if we hadn't we probably wouldn't be as far [along] as we are today."

SKIRBLE: "Yet as you look down the street you see you still have a tremendous amount to do. How do you keep the La Plata town spirit up as it says on your T-Shirt?"

"I think that if we don't keep the spirit up and get things going we really are in danger of loosing some of the businesses," responds Lisa Bailes. "And, while I think that the residents are anxious to rebuild, I think that the residents also know that at the end of the day if there isn't a town here we will all have lost something. The homeowners are already bonding together to be able to help one another and create a vision of what their streets will look like, to capture and retain the historical influences of what we've had here. And, I think from the business standpoint we have to band together to build momentum so we'll have a whole community filled with residents and businesses when we're done."

Lisa and Paul Bailes plan to reopen their restaurant in some limited fashion almost the week of May 12. They say it will be a sign to residents and business owners that La Plata will not slip away but will come back stronger than ever.