WASHINGTON – Nearly a year and a half after a tornado damaged La Plata United Methodist Church and destroyed its Blessed Lambs preschool, children returned to brand-new classrooms at the school this fall.
But as Hurricane Isabel bore down on the region this week, school director Julie Robbins remained calm and practical. Robbins said she has had time on her side with Isabel, unlike when the tornado hit with little warning in April 2002.
“It’s such a different thing to think that you have time to prepare for something,” Robbins said. She said teachers and aides planned to move playground equipment and other loose items inside, out of the wind and that Thursday night meetings at the church would be canceled.
La Plata residents, business owners and employees seemed to be taking Hurricane Isabel in stride, just 17 months after the F4 La Plata Tornado of April 28, 2002, destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses and killed three people.
Days of warnings, combined with first-hand experience with the destruction Mother Nature can cause, seem to have prepared them for the worst. And they are preparing — or not — as they see fit.
“We were blindsided by the most powerful tornado to ever hit the East Coast,” said Paul Bales, who owns a Charles Street restaurant and pub, The Crossing at Casey Jones, with his wife, Lisa.
Bales estimates the tornado caused nearly $750,000 of damage to his business, knocking down office and storage space, driving glass on the back walls of the restaurant and plucking air conditioning and heating units off the roof.
The pub reopened three and a half weeks after the tornado, serving sandwiches and salads. The dining room reopened at the end of this June.
While their “level of caution” was starting to increase Wednesday with the “crescendo” of media coverage of the storm, Bales said he was not scared of the days ahead. He had more practical matters in mind, like securing the outdoor furniture, making contingency plans for his staff and readying his insurance papers.
At La Plata Family Dental Association, which was also damaged in the tornado, receptionist Dee Cooper said Wednesday that she and Dr. Mike Saoud had not made any storm preparations, even though it “seems to be everything everyone’s talking about.”
The practice reopened in February, after sharing space with another doctor during the repairs.
Cooper, who lives in St. Mary’s County, said that since the tornado she has noticed that people worry more when the sky darkens, as if the tornado is “always in the back of their minds.” But a hurricane is not as ominous to Cooper.
“At least with a hurricane you do get some warning,” she said.
Town officials readied for the storm, planning to keep town hall open all night Thursday and to have more police officers on duty.
“Since the tornado, we have a heightened sensitivity to what Mother Nature can do,” said Town Manager Douglas Miller. “We in the town are very respectful of what’s coming our way.”
But Tom and Rose Hinman — who salvaged only a computer hard drive and a file cabinet after the tornado ripped their business apart — said they would not be doing anything to prepare for Isabel.
Neither were his neighbors, said Hinman, a contractor who reopened his business in a new location just a week after the tornado. He said he had not had any requests to board up homes, but that roofers he knows had patched some leaks as Isabel neared.
Rose Hinman said she is more scared of tornadoes than the rain that Isabel will bring.
A piece of gutter stuck high in a tree across the street from their home still winks at them, a constant reminder of April 28, 2002, when she hid in a bathroom with her husband and their two cockatiels, waiting for the twister to pass.
“How worse can it get?” Tom Hinman asked.