LA PLATA - Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who toured this town's most devastated areas yesterday, asked President Bush to declare Charles, Calvert and Dorchester counties federal disaster areas after Sunday's ferocious and fatal tornado.
The request, announced by Glendening as he was shown the wreckage of law offices, a home improvement center and a flower shop, is the first step to receiving federal assistance to help repair damage estimated by state officials at more than $100 million. A response from the White House could take several days.
The state immediately made $400,000 available to start the rebuilding, and Glendening said he would meet with General Assembly leaders about transferring more state money for use here.
"This is La Plata, and it's gone," the governor said, shaking his head at the destruction around him on St. Mary's Avenue. "We're going to rebuild, no doubt about it. But it's heartbreaking."
The twister - Maryland's worst ever, with an F5 rating on the scale used by meteorologists to rate tornado intensity - destroyed or damaged dozens of buildings with winds over 261 mph. Three people died.
By last night, the 31 families who had been staying at a shelter in nearby Waldorf had found other housing, and the shelter was closed.
To help those displaced by the storm, Charles County officials created the Charles County Disaster Relief Fund. Today, the county is opening the People's Place, where nonmonetary donations can be made and residents can get aid such as insurance assistance and mental health counseling.
Salvation Army officials said yesterday that a "tremendous" number of people were calling to offer assistance. Donors were asked to send only money or canned food, marked for the La Plata drive, to the nearest Salvation Army center until a warehouse can be located to store other items, such as clothing and furniture.
Maj. Ronnie Raymer, the group's Maryland disaster coordinator, estimated that volunteers have served more than 500 meals to the hundreds of emergency personnel and residents.
A 9 p.m. curfew was in effect again last night. County schools will open today except in La Plata, and county offices are also expected to reopen. "We'll be back in business," said Murray D. Levy, president of the Charles County Board of Commissioners.
That sense of determination abounded, even as property owners, volunteers and officials continued the tedious and depressing task of sifting through and removing rubble. "We will rebuild La Plata," read one T-shirt. "And we won't let any F5-ing tornado stop us."
But what kind of La Plata will re-emerge remains to be seen. The Charles County seat is evolving from a country town into a bedroom community for Washington commuters, many of whom live in large houses on land where crops once grew.
"A lot of people live here and sleep here, but work in Washington, D.C., or close to it," said Jennifer Pitts, coordinator of the Southern Maryland Studies Center at the College of Southern Maryland here. The draw, she said, is the chance to have "a little piece of country."
With the explosion of chain stores and strip malls on U.S. 301 in recent decades, the historic downtown offered little shopping to La Plata's 6,500 residents even before the storm. Law firms and doctors' offices dominated. The last place in town to buy a suit, Bowling's, has closed.
In a sign of the population's change, a high-end restaurant, the Crossing at Casey Jones, was thriving downtown before the storm hit. "We definitely have a much more sophisticated clientele," said owner Paul Bales, attributing that partly to the influx of newcomers.
The parish of Christ Church reflects the broader demographic changes.
Its members include Rudolph Garner, whose forehead still bears a crease inflicted during the deadly tornado of 1926. Another member traces his lineage to Declaration of Independence signer Thomas Stone, another to Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer, who signed the Constitution.
But most of the 300 parishioners are not county natives. Some work at or retired from the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, and a growing number commute 50 minutes each way (on a good day) to Washington.
"It's changed a lot since I've been here," said the Rev. Joseph W. Trigg, pastor for nine years at the limestone Gothic church, which lost part of its roof in the storm. "We have a lot of new people coming in. All the farms are becoming developments. Many are big homes."
With that has come the "typical tension between newcomers and older residents" over issues such as traffic congestion and crowded schools, said Helen Harrington, a resident for 15 years. On the plus side, she said, new arrivals bring "new ideas and new ways of looking at things."
As longtime downtown stores shut their doors and a few vacancies sprang up, no one feared the town was dying, Trigg said. Rather, the only question was how it would develop.
A committee that spent three years developing a vision has come up with a plan for a more pedestrian-friendly downtown similar to Annapolis.
"This [the storm] has changed our timetable," said Mayor William Eckman, adding that new architectural standards will prevent unattractive structures from rising.
Eckman estimates one-third of residents commute to Washington. The vision plan, he said, jibes with the desires of old-timers as well as newcomers who want a small-town atmosphere where summer concerts are given on the town hall lawn.
"We were able to come up with a consensus everybody seems to agree on," he said.