They huddled in a place where the dead are remembered and mourned, thankful not to be among them.
In the aftermath of the devastation visited on the 1200 block of E. North Ave. yesterday afternoon, families took temporary shelter in the closest available refuge, the March Funeral Home at East North Avenue and Aisquith Street.
Pearl Brown, 78, held on to a chair, breathing carefully.
"I was laying down, and all at once the wind came and the whole roof came off, and the whole front of the house went out into the street," said Ms. Brown, who has owned her North Avenue rowhouse for about six years. "I just laid there. I thought the wind was going to take us away."
Ms. Brown, who suffered a stroke two years ago, was worried about her health. A nurse on the scene had just told her that her blood pressure was extremely high, she said.
As Ms. Brown spoke, a small girl whose home was damaged by the storm played among the mauve curtains and chased a boy around the funeral home's main altar.
A few yards away, the bodies of a man in a dark suit and a woman dressed in burgundy lay peacefully in open coffins in viewing rooms, their faces bathed in a soft glow. Despite the chaos in the streets, several people came to pay their last respects.
"They needed a place," Annette March-Grier, one of the owners of the funeral home, said of those who had been uprooted by the storm. "Fortunately, we don't have any services going on."
Ms. Brown's story was one of dozens being told around the city yesterday, particularly in two heavily damaged pockets, one in East Baltimore, the other in West Baltimore.
Several hours after the storm, those at the funeral home moved to the Cecil-Kirk Recreation Center a few blocks away, where some were to spend the night awaiting more permanent housing.
Anthony Lewis, director of the center, said about 150 people from East Baltimore showed up looking for housing.
Meanwhile, in West Baltimore, about 40 people, mostly children, took shelter in the Harlem Park Elementary School cafeteria, where the words "The Place to Be" are painted on the walls.
About a dozen parents and teachers helped pour coffee and hot chocolate, set up cafeteria tables decorated with flowers and served fast-food hamburgers. Several ministers were on hand for counseling, and school staffers rolled out a large-screen television set so that the children could watch cartoons.
Red Cross helps
Last night, workers with the Red Cross of Central Maryland said 14 West Baltimore families had signed up for relocation, nearly everyone who was displaced in that part of the city. People who could not notify relatives and obtain shelter were to be placed in area motels.
Darrell Edmonds, 53, wasn't even able to spent a night in his one-bedroom apartment in the 1700 block of Harlem Ave. before it was destroyed by the storm.
An hour before the winds kicked up, he and his friends finished laying tiles and installing ceiling fans. He said he was lucky that he hadn't moved in his furniture.
"I started bringing in the furniture, but because of the storm I didn't," he said.
As Mr. Edmonds applied for relocation, he said, "I'll be OK. I'll find something."
Gloria Jones, who was at the Harlem Park shelter, said she was reading her Bible in the living room of a house in the 1400 block of Lafayette Ave. when the storm hit. It "sounded like someone shot a gun," she said.
Mrs. Jones went to the shelter to comfort her granddaughter, fourth-grader Towanda White, who was crying and asking for her mother.
A few blocks away, Victor Givens, 34, surveyed the damage to Terry's Sandtown Confectionery.
Last year, he helped put up the store's roof. Yesterday, he stood next to part of it as it lay in the middle of the 900 block of Calhoun St.
'A crazy scene'
The wind "just picked it up and just took it," he said. "It was a crazy scene."
The storm also broke the windows of Mr. Givens' nearby house, slightly injuring his girlfriend, 40-year-old Debra Johnson.
"It was like the Wizard of Oz in my bathroom," Ms. Johnson said. "A board went through the window, and I was inside."
Yesterday's storm was the biggest emergency the Red Cross of Central Maryland has dealt with since a tornado hit Reisterstown in October 1990. The organization aided 109 families after that disaster, said Mike Ritter, director of emergency services.
City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who surveyed the damage, said it was "a miracle" that no one was seriously hurt.
For Robert L. Brooks, a 27-year-old bricklayer, the winds that ripped through houses in the 1700 block of Harlem Ave. damaged or destroyed almost everything he owns.
He said he was on the first floor of his house, which he shares with several other families, when he heard bricks starting to fall at the back of the house.
"We came out in the hallway, and pieces just started falling, and then the whole thing just came down," Mr. Brooks said. Bricks and roofing tar battered his third-floor bedroom. His bed, dresser, clothes, stereo, television set and videocassette recorder were knocked around the room and buried under debris.
Mr. Brooks and other residents left the house and sought help from the Red Cross when a city building inspector declared the structure unsafe.
Markee Dickerson, 14, who had come home from school early, narrowly escaped injury at one of the North Avenue houses.
"The roof flew off. The window busted. At first it was like a flood, and then it just blew," he said.
His aunt, Marlene Allen, who owns the house, burst into tears when asked whether her losses would be covered.
As relatives tried to comfort her, she held her head in her hands and said, "I just told the man last month I wanted to get my house insurance."
If you want to help: Donations can be sent to the American Red Cross, 4700 Mount Hope Drive, Baltimore 21215.
If you have insurance questions: The National Insurance Consumers Helpline, operated by the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute, is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at (800) 942-4242.
For help in Baltimore: The Red Cross planned to set up a service center at the mayor's station at 1634 Guilford Ave.