La Plata 10th anniversary logoFirst of two parts

William F. Eckman remembers the late afternoon of April 28, 2002 as bright and sunny in his yard in La Plata. Forecasts on radio and TV described a storm moving through but predicted it farther north in Charles County. The sky did change and he noticed that, strangely, debris began to swirl about off the ground. But Eckman, who had been mayor of the town for 17 years at that point, said he didn’t think much of it until his town manager called. “Mayor,” he said, “we just got hit and hit hard.” All seemed fairly normal on Eckman’s block, although he was startled when his neighbor said he’d heard the hospital in town had lost water pressure and he wondered whether something had happened to the town’s water tower. “No, the tower can’t be down,” the mayor said.

He learned very shortly that indeed the strongest tornado in recorded history in Maryland struck La Plata that day. It claimed four lives, including a heart attack victim. The tornado – measured at F4 on the Fujita Scale, the second-highest intensity — carved a path about three football fields wide through the middle of town. Douglas Miller, then the town’s manager, had followed the TV weather reports of unstable conditions moving west into the Washington region that afternoon. He felt pity for a former government colleague in Southern Maryland who had just taken a new job in Warrenton, Virginia, where early reports said a twister was headed.

“My first thought was ‘poor guy’,” recalled Miller, who became town manager of Aberdeen, Maryland in 2006. “Little did we know … It started to get ugly outside and my wife asked, ‘Why is that airplane flying so low?’ And we realized that was no airplane. That was the tornado.”

Tornado Study Area

Tornado Study Area

The storm was unusual and particularly destructive because it stayed on the ground for about 25 miles. No storm of that size had ever been recorded so near the northeast Atlantic Coast, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Winds exceeding 260 mph destroyed 48 commercial buildings and 41 single-family homes and left more than $100 million in property damage in the Charles County seat. The tornado left hundreds of people homeless, lifted the second floor off a parochial school, leveled the post office and did, indeed, topple that water tower, spilling the 75,000 gallons it contained. But Eckman, who left office in 2006, and others say the upcoming 10th anniversary remembrance of that natural disaster is more hopeful that it might have been.

“The leadership of the town looked at recovery as an opportunity more than as a problem,” said Jesse Ash, a strategic development planner with the Maryland Department of Planning and one of the early responders.

The town is holding a community event on April 28 that will be parts solemn, hopeful and celebratory. “Tornado of 2002: A Stronger and Closer Community,” read blue banners displayed around town. The logo on the signs depicts a twister morphing into a Gold Star, long the town symbol atop that water tower. The town is also using the occasion to recognize all the assistance it received from far and wide. In the days and weeks that followed the destruction, the State Highway Administration sent one-quarter of its total resources to La Plata. Governor O’Malley, then the mayor of Baltimore, dispatched 35 men and a flotilla of 17 pieces of equipment from the city. Amish farmers came to help from St. Mary’s County. With the phone service out, the La Plata town manager discovered the mayor of Ocean City standing at town hall at dawn the morning after the storm asking how his town could help. Tiny Oxford on the Eastern Shore sent its lone public works employee and truck. The Maryland Municipal League coordinated multiple offers of assistance from around the state.

William Eckman, former La Plata mayor

William Eckman, former La Plata mayor

Beyond the initial response, the story of the La Plata tornado is a testament to planning: The town had a vision for what it needed long before the terrible storm touched down.  “If we wouldn’t have known what we wanted to do, we wouldn’t have ended up better off,” Eckman said.

Much of the town’s building stock dated to the early 20th century, when a new station on the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad thrust it from a town of several hundred residents to several thousand. How the town became named after the Rio de la Plata region between Argentina and Uruguay seems a matter of some dispute. John W. Wearmouth’s centennial history of the town in 1988 concluded that merchant marines from Southern Maryland brought home the name in the 1800s after they were hired, under the flag of the United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata, to assist liberation forces in the Argentine War of Independence. Maryland sailors became known following the notable contributions they made to United States’ successful campaign against Britain in the War of 1812.

The 2002 tornado actually wasn’t the most deadly to ever sweep La Plata. A tornado 76 years earlier on November 9, 1926 destroyed the town’s only public school at the time and killed 13 students. With no hospital in the region then, private automobiles ferried badly injured children to Washington, D.C. 35 miles to the south. A month after that storm, only 19 of 61 students were back in class. The next couple of decades reshaped the region. President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated construction of a new bridge over the Potomac River and the building of U.S. 301 reoriented businesses along “the strip.” La Plata’s population grew fivefold from about 1,200 in 1960 to 6,600 by 2000.

La Plata’s town fathers had been concerned for several years about the shrinking business district, however, as commerce — and shoppers — moved about 10 miles north to the 301 corridor in Waldorf.

“When I moved to La Plata in 1964, there were four department stores downtown,” Eckman said. “By 2002, you would have been hard-pressed to be able to buy a handkerchief” there. La Plata officials also were anxious about a state plan for an eventual bypass that would sweep passersby, and potential business, around the town. (It was never built.)

In cooperation with officials from Charles County and the Maryland Department of Planning, the town convened a task force and held planning charrettes with residents to shape “The Plan for the Future of Downtown La Plata.” It was released March 15, 2001 — 409 days before the tornado. The plan envisioned a more walkable, more “quaint” commercial area. “Route 301 will not ‘go away,’” the report cautioned, acknowledging that La Plata could better compete with surrounding areas by playing to its “small town character.”

Without the plan ready, it is doubtful merchants would have waited through an extensive planning process before replacing their businesses. As it was, the town had to address anxiety among some property owners who feared the town’s “vision” would impede them from rebuilding as they wished. Several weeks of “honeymoon” that City Hall enjoyed immediately following the storm was fading. The town responded that it didn’t intend to hold anyone up. But they said replacement buildings would have to meet modern code standards that some older buildings, through “grandfather” provisions, long avoided. The town encouraged property owners to rebuild in accord with the “vision” plan by offering incentives – tax credits, grants, design assistance, permit fees waived.

“There was a plan and many of the affected property owners were victims but they had also been part of the process so they knew what we had done,” said Miller, the town manager. “Almost to a person, they built back bigger and better. We knew if these businesses had gone to White Plains or Waldorf, we wouldn’t ever get them back. If we hadn’t had the visioning process, we would have lost a lot of business people because they would not have believed.”

Tomorrow: Turning adversity into opportunity