To the Rescue
Look at your watch.
Follow the sweep of the second hand as it ticks off the pas-sage
of time---10 seconds...20...30...40. In just 40 seconds, your
life can change forever.
That's exactly what happened at 7:08 in the eveing of Sunday,
April 28 in LaPlata, a nice little community an hour's drive south
of Annapolis on Route 301. The most powerful tornado ever to hit
the East Coast of the United States ripped through LaPlata, killing
three and injuring hundreds. The twister damaged a thousand homes
and businesses, uprooted trees and left a path of destruction
and heartbreak, the full magnitude of which is only now being
grasped. Damage estimates are in the $120 to $150 million range---and
After two days of being the lead story on national and local news,
the TV cameras left and the newspaper reporters went away, leaving
this little town struggling to do what Americans always do---pull
together to turn tragedy into triumph.
But, we get ahead of our story.
On that fateful evening, Doug Miller, town manager of LaPlata
for the past 15 years, was tracking a major storm on TV. (Annapolitans
may remember Doug's family---his grandfather "Rip" Miller was
a Navy football coach; the Astroturf practice field is named after
him.) TV weathermen predicted the storm was heading north of Waldorf,
about 15 miles away, but Doug saw something he didn't like. Using
a plastic ruler, he determined the twister was coming uncomfortably
close. Then, Doug's wife Anne screamed "That airplane is flying
awfully low." Doug knew it was no airplane. In seconds, Doug's
Quailwood neighborhood suffered 70 percent damage.
Casey Gittings, a 28-year veteran of the Annapolis Police Department,
is now the police chief in LaPlata. He was painting a room in
his home about three miles north of town. Because he didn't have
the TV or radio playing, he had no inkling of the storm's approach.
Suddenly, he heard a noise unlike anything he recognized, and
it was growing louder. Outside was the worst hail storm he'd ever
witnessed. "We had softball sized hail pelting our home and beating
up our vehicles," says Casey. Although the tornado spared his
house, the associated hail broke windows and left his personal
truck and his police car looking like some enraged giant had taken
a ball- peen hammer to them.
The phone rang. It was Doug Miller telling Casey what he just
realized---that a tornado had hit---and he needed to get downtown
Casey climbed into his battered cruiser and turned on the police
radio. His officers were already requesting assignments without
being asked. As he drove closer, Casey expected damage, but what
he saw was sensory overload.
Downtown was unrecognizable. Devastation was everywhere. Cars
and trucks were strewn all over the place. Every single window
was broken. Every vehicle looked like it had been burned, but
nothing was on fire.
Commercial buildings were missing---no debris, no piles of bricks
or shattered lumber---just gone. What appeared to be burned vehicles
was actually the result of the 270 mph winds peeling the asphalt
off roads and parking lots and plastering everything in sight
with the blackish residue.
Casey vividly recalled what was running through his mind. "The
very first thing we needed to do was...everything!"
The job of cleaning up started immediately. "As the sun came up
Monday morning, we were all able to see the full scope of the
damage for the first time," Doug recalls. He'd been through disasters
before but had never seen such devastation. "I knew we needed
to clean up the mess, but had no idea where to start."
Then the phones started ringing. In a makeshift office with no
roof, volunteers handled calls from all across the country---people
willing to lend a hand---so many that the phone system failed.
"We received offers from as far away as Indiana," says Patti Bembe.
Annapolitans will remember Patti as the helpful and friendly young
lady who served as city clerk for 17 years before taking the position
of assistant town manager in LaPlata.
"We got so much help so fast that it was impossible to keep track
of it all," Patti exclaims. Agencies like the Red Cross (whose
local headquarters was flattened by the twister) assisted with
temporary housing. The Salvation Army was "magnificent" throughout,
feeding people where they were working so the clean-up work could
continue unabated. Patti observed a Baptist disaster relief trailer
with Georgia plates working with two local churches. Public works
crews from surrounding jurisdictions, including a group from Annapolis,
just "showed up and started working---hey knew what to do." The
Arundel Alarmers were on site with food and drink; an Amish community
arrived and helped from sunrise to sunset; neighbors whose homes
were habitable offered shelter to those whose homes were shattered.
"We saw the bond among people becoming stronger by the hour,"
Clearly missing was an effective communications system. Things
we take for granted like electricity, telephone service, and the
ability to flush toilets suddenly became major concerns. "The
power was out for about a week at Town Hall; the telephone system
was overloaded and rendered unusable for at least three days;
and our water system came perilously close to failing," Doug says.
"We knew we needed to get information out---but how?"
That's when Lisa and Paul Bales, owners of "The Crossing at Casey
Jones," a 22- year-old local restaurant located just a few blocks
from Town Hall, stepped forward. Their establishment had the reputation
of being an "unofficial" gathering place for LaPlatans. And that
served the town very well when a community meeting was called
on Tuesday, just two days after the twister hit. "We were hit
hard, but at least we had walls and a part of a roof left. We
knew it was important to facilitate a grass roots informational
meeting because LaPlata looked like Beirut; people were hurting,"
News of the meeting spread by word of mouth. Mayor William Eckman
brought folks he knew would have the answers to questions townspeople
had but didn't know who to ask. Other government officials were
there; insurance experts came; and about 150 to 200 people showed
up. Patti says, "It was exactly what we needed."
Since the storm, Lisa Bales' daily wardrobe consists of Levis
and a T-shirt sporting the message "LaPlata, Maryland, April 28th,
2002---Twisted, But Not Broken!" She and Paul purchased several
hundred shirts and are selling them for $10 each to raise money
for the Town of LaPlata Relief Fund. "Every dime of the T-shirt
money goes into this fund," Lisa says, "because we consider ourselves
lucky and know others really need help."
Sitting down to reflect, Patti, Doug and Casey thought about a
story or incident that sticks in their minds. They all mentioned
when the 300-plus pieces of clean-up equipment left on Friday,
May 10th in an impromptu parade. They drove away to the applause
and appreciation of LaPlatans, but then an eerie quiet settled
over the town---no "beep-beep" back-up signals, no chattering
stump grinders, no growls of the bulldozers---just quiet.
Patti told of her 77-year-old mother, Jo Bembe. As soon as she
heard the news, she came down from Annapolis to prepare daily
hot meals for clean-up workers, complete with flowers and dessert.
Doug recalled the one thing he wished he'd never said. Father
Matt of Sacred Heart Catholic Church was organizing a prayer service,
but Doug doubted its practicality considering the downed wires,
the impassable streets and the organized chaos of ongoing clean-up.
"I told a reporter that Father Matt was preparing a dis-service.
When you consider I hadn't slept for three days, saying something
that dumb might be understandable."
Casey's a big, tough cop but, as he told his story, tears welled
up. He was on patrol in one of the worst-damaged neighborhoods
and spied a man crying uncontrollably, sitting in front of a pile
of rubble that had been his house. Casey figured the sobbing fellow
might be injured. "Are you OK?" Casey asked. "I am now," the man
replied. "My dog came back!" Casey saw the man's wife loving on
a rambunctious pup. It had been over a week since the vicious
storm carried him away to who knows where---and he just came back!
Such are the stories LaPlatans will tell for years. But right
now, they're working hard to return to whatever "normal" is. Casey
might even pick up the paintbrush he put down on April 28 and
finish that room.
Editor's Note: Those wishing to help are encouraged to make
a donation to: Town of LaPlata Relief Fund, Town Hall, 5 Garrett
Avenue, P.O. Box 1038, LaPlata, MD 20646.