Emerging from the wreckage


The stage now belongs to insurance adjusters and repair crews in the aftermath of violent thunderstorms that spawned at least six tornadoes in Maryland.

Damage from the storms, which hit Southern Maryland about 6:30 p.m. Wednesday and worked their way north over the next four hours, was isolated but spectacular.

Craig Nelson and Annette Holmbren spent the night in their van after a tornado snatched nearly the entire roof from their Kent Island home, the only house to be damaged on their block. About 40 homes on Kent Island were damaged when the tornado touched down at least twice there.

"We have some really cool skylights," Ms. Holmbren said as she took visitors through the rented house to show them the stairwell to the second floor, where only sky and rafters are visible.

From Pope's Creek to Chestertown, people were clearing up debris, pumping out flooded basements and swapping storm stories.

"We were in the living room watching television, and we heard the wind kicking up, and the glass in the sliding glass door started moving in and out," Ms. Holmbren recalled. "I thought it was going to shatter, but it didn't. Then I saw the gas grill go from one side of the patio to the other, and I knew we were in trouble."

The couple hid in a pantry under the stairwell near the center of the house.

"The pressure was incredible, like when you're in an airplane and your ears clog," she said. "I was thinking, 'Oh my God, we're going to die.' "

Thirty seconds later, it was over.

Civil Defense sirens were sounded in Chestertown 10 minutes before the tornado struck, and a countywide alarm alerted volunteer firefighters and medics, said Robert B. Rust Jr., the Kent County emergency management director.

A couple of miles away, a sleepless William T. Brawner shook his head in disbelief as he surveyed the storm damage yesterday in and around his waterfront home on Still Pond Creek.

Oak trees -- some more than 200 years old -- lay strewn about his property. Tall poplar and beech trees, their roots ripped out of the ground to expose holes 5 feet deep, leaned against each other, the house and on top of a car.

"There are things we just don't understand," said the 62-year-old head of a family-run development company based in Washington.

When the tornado struck, a sudden change in air pressure apparently sucked the water from the toilets. Powerful winds flipped the Brawners' new 30-foot fiberglass boat upside down, even though it was moored snugly to their dock.

Winds top 120 mph

As cleanup crews worked to clear fallen trees from around the house, Fred Davis, chief meteorologist at the National Weather Service's Baltimore-Washington International Airport office, walked the property with Mr. Brawner.

Mr. Davis estimated the Kent County tornado at 120 mph to 150mph, making it a Force 1 or Force 2 storm on a scale that classifies the strongest tornado as a Force 5.

Daryl Hockstra, chief of the Anne Arundel County Bureau of Highways, said the storm there was the worst he had seen.

Many people said they were amazed at how quickly the storm came upon them. "It was twilight one minute, and then the next thing I knew it was like trying to look through asphalt because the sky got so dark," said Audrey Ditch, 59, of Pasadena. "I can't remember anything like this ever happening around here."

In the Riviera Beach area of Anne Arundel County, Marshall McCabe was celebrating his 47th birthday at a crab feast in a workshop attached to his father's garage when the lights went out and he heard what sounded "like a jet plane landing."

He didn't know whether it was a tornado or just a powerful thunderstorm, he said, but for a few seconds he thought it would kill him or some of the seven family members and friends who huddled with him in the darkened shed.

"Everybody was screaming and hollering. It was crazy," said Mr. McCabe. "I started yelling people's names and asking if there were all right."

His daughter, Tamara Farley, 27, had started for the door calling for her children, Courtney, 7, and Danny, 3, when Mr. McCabe grabbed her by the back of the shirt and forced her to the ground as the metal roof caved in around them.

As it turned out, Mrs. Farley's children were all right, safely huddled with relatives in the shed.

Mr. McCabe and his daughter said they were shocked at the apparent whimsical nature of the storm. It toppled three trees around Mrs. Farley's modest two-bedroom house but left the house intact.

David Dionne, superintendent at the 288-acre Kinder Park in Severna Park, said he felt as if he was walking through a battlefield when he went out to survey the damage. Nearby, Lake Waterford Park lost about 75 trees on its 106 acres.

'It was just surreal'

Wednesday night, sparks were flying from live electrical wires that were downed, two of the park's wooden barns had blown over, felled trees blocked every road, much of the crop in the community gardens was leveled, and rain fell in sheets.

"It was just surreal," said Mr. Dionne, 37.

In the North Beach area of Calvert County, a twister sent a 125-foot-tall oak tree from a neighbor's yard crashing into the home of Dennis and Lisa Frostbutter as they sat down for pizza after 8:30 p.m. It tore through the roof and wall of a rear bedroom and crushed the bunk beds of their sons, ages 2 and 3. The boys were not in the beds.

Yesterday, the room was filled with mangled branches and wet insulation. The tree also tore into the roof and sliding door of the Frostbutters' bedroom, leaving the ceiling beams and roof trusses exposed.

"I'm just thankful the kids are alive, thankful they weren't in their bed," Mr. Frostbutter said.

Some looked for a deeper meaning in the wake of the maelstrom that shook usually serene places such as Kent Island.

"Normally, it's a peaceful place -- so quiet. Then all of a sudden, God says, 'Let's give 'em a little rumble,' " said Jack Cover, who was in Baltimore when a neighbor called to tell him the tornado had hit. "Fill up the church on Sunday. Do you suppose he works like that?"

Others laid the responsibility on a more earthly plane.

Mr. Cover's neighbors, 78-year-old Tillie Neely, her son and his wife, lost their new Bayliner boat -- worth about $25,000 -- in the tornado. Their waterfront house wasn't damaged, but the funnel cloud picked the boat up from a trailer and dumped it bow first into the creek that runs behind their street.

Shortly before the storm hit, Mrs. Neely said, she was watching a weather forecast on television.

"He was saying the tornado was heading through Pasadena and Riviera Beach, and I thought, 'Good, it's missed us.' Five minutes later, it hit," she said.

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