COLLEGE PARK – Hundreds of University of Maryland students were allowed back into tornado-damaged apartments Wednesday and given 15 minutes to collect up clothes, books and other parts of their lives before being shooed away again.
The 704 students who live in the University Courtyard apartments have been homeless since a Monday evening twister ripped through the area, killing sisters Colleen and Erin Marlatt and injuring 25 other students.
Many of the students who showed up Wednesday were still wearing the clothes they were in when the tornado struck Monday evening, tossing cars and tearing some roofs and balconies off apartments.
They have been locked out of the complex and forced to bunk with family or friends or sleep, barracks-style, at the indoor basketball courts in the university recreation center.
Managers of the apartment complex said residents of two buildings that suffered the least damage should be able to return Thursday. The other five buildings in the complex, however, suffered more severe damage and it may be weeks before students can return.
Some students were able to sneak into their apartments immediately after Monday’s tornado and grab essentials — a toothbrush, underwear and deodorant — not realizing that they could be homeless for up to a month.
“I had just bought $75 worth of groceries,” said Jason Brooke, a senior bioengineering major who was waiting to get into his apartment Wednesday. “If we don’t get in for two weeks, there will be roaches without a doubt.”
The university allotted four hours Wednesday for all 704 residents to be shuttled in shifts from campus to the apartment buildings. Some students who were unwilling to wait for the shuttle crossed busy University Boulevard, armed with suitcases and duffel bags.
Those returning from the complex reported that shattered glass blanketed the floors, and that apartments stunk of rotten food.
Senior Steve Cohen was upset that officials limited the amount of time that displaced residents could gather belongings.
“They are treating us like children,” said Cohen. “I do not see why they are a putting a time limit on how long we can go in. If it is safe to go in for 15 minutes, than is should be safe enough to let us go in for an hour.”
He said university officials seemed more concerned two days after the tornado hit than they did Monday night.
“They weren’t doing anything when we all standing around after the tornado struck, there was only one fire investigator and two police officers,” he said.
Ebony Sails, a junior who got into her apartment, was happy that her fish survived the storm. Sails made the most of her 15 minutes, returning with her fish, two trunks, a suitcase, an oversized duffel bag and a storage box, all filled with books, clothes, and other necessities.
Some students seemed out of sorts, a bit frazzled from two nights of sleeping on couches and trying to manage full-time course loads without a sense of security — or textbooks.
“I have a feeling of helplessness, and I just want everything to go back to normal,” said Lisa Politzer, a senior marketing major. “I just walk around feeling lost in a dysfunctional mode. I don’t feel like myself.”
Politzer’s car, a 1998 Toyota 4Runner, suffered $7,000 to $8,000 of damage.
“Its just so devastating,” said Politzer. “The car is a material thing, but when you see your car in pieces, it hurts.”
She is staying with her family in Silver Spring, normally a 20-minute drive. But road closings caused by the storm turned traffic to and from campus into a nightmare Wednesday.
Jason Ernst, a senior who is also temporarily staying in Silver Spring, said that it took him three hours to drive to school Wednesday morning.
“It would have been easier to walk,” he said.
While they await word on whether or not they can get back in for good, students said they are just trying to live day to day.
“Life has to go on,” said Brooke.