Don't talk to Alice Pompey about any tornado.
Her Sapp Street rowhouse roof, peeled back like the top of a sardine can in Tuesday's high winds, was condemned by the city yesterday.
But the 91-year-old retired housekeeper, who paid off her $1,400 mortgage in $3-a-week installments long ago, claims neighborhood roots so strong that she will not be moved.
"And that's it," she said with a knee-slap of emphasis as some of her 25 grandchildren rallied yesterday to find a contractor who might get the work done before they would have to get her to depart for more than a night or two.
As storm victims sorted through their belongings -- and their ragged emotions -- under the shadows of demolition cranes, their circumstances before the storm seemed to dictate how sharply they felt the sting of nature's rude smack.
Mrs. Pompey's neighbors, who took her in Tuesday night, and a legion of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, many of whom were delivered into this world by Mrs. Pompey right in her Sapp Street home, gave her an insulating self-assurance yesterday.
But her young neighbor around the corner on East North Avenue, Paris White, had only had the briefest acquaintance with a settled life in her "dream" apartment before the tornado shredded a third-floor corner into an open-air flutter of pink insulation and rubble. It was just enough of a taste of the good life to make her feel that she was losing much -- even though the only loss in material terms she had in her apartment full of new furniture was her bed, which was crushed by rubble.
"This was the first time I got me and my kids settled into a home on our own," said the 24-year-old single mother of three grade-schoolers.
"Before I found this place I was so upset at trying to find a place that I'd just cry on the street while I was looking."
Nervously anticipating a rumored demolition of the building yesterday, she and her landlady -- Eugenia Oliver -- stuffed colanders and Barneys into huge plastic bags toted downstairs by young men to city flatbed trucks that would take them to storage provided by the Red Cross. She rapidly ticked off why this was a "dream" apartment: the convenience of nearby Harford Heights Elementary School, the spic-and-span renovated building and the easy trip it was to her job as an assistant manager of a clothes store in the Gallery.
The mention of her job made Ms. White run her fingers through her hair in anxiety and add: "I'll be missing work all week and not getting paid." The spiral of Tuesday's tornado threatened to spin her down and out -- down a week's pay and out of an apartment.
Young Ms. White, Mrs. Pompey and other neighbors with gaping roofs and shattered walls shared confusion over what was going to happen to them, or what they could do to help themselves. While utilities were off, residents were not prevented from being in their apartments -- but they were caught in a limbo of whether to stay or go, whether to clean up or pack up.
Ms. White and Mrs. Pompey both were unaware of the array of emergency services that the Red Cross provides disaster victims -- services such as temporary shelter, vouchers for food and clothes, rental trucks to haul household goods, and temporary storage facilities for those belongings.
Asked about the Red Cross, Mrs. Pompey said, "I belong to Blue Cross, but I do remember the Red Cross helped my brother in the war." Even when told that the Red Cross could help her leave her home, there just was no room for such thoughts.
Ms. White, on the other hand, was thrown into a brief panic when told that to get Red Cross services she had to go with ID to the emergency center at Guilford and Lanvale.
First, she couldn't remember where her purse was amid the furniture piling up for transit near her front door. Then, gesturing to her massive packing job, she said, "but how can I go if they're going to tear down the building?"
Indeed, there was confusion for everyone about the status of their buildings. A red condemnation tag slapped on a door could signal total demolition or just condemnation until repairs were made.
North Avenue and side streets in the neighborhood were crawling with an army of city and utility workers, each one passing by with a different story about what was happening.
Al Waters, a city building construction inspector, initially told Mrs. Pompey that all she had was a leak in her roof and that she could stay in her home.
But even as Ms. Pompey had settled into a chair amid the accumulation of a long life -- like pinups of Jesus, the slain Kennedy brothers, her numerous offspring and what may have been greeting cards from each of her 91 birthdays -- Mr. Waters changed his mind. A look at the back of the house showed that the roof was off -- which means by city code that the house is not habitable, he said.
Mrs. Oliver, the landlady who says she got her North Avenue apartment building as "settlement for 26 years of marriage," listened to explanations all morning, each one with different implications for the building that is essentially her retirement investment.
"Someone said we can stay . . . then they said it was condemned and the crane would be here at 10:30 to tear it down, then they said they were just going to take off the side of the building," she said. "I'm getting conflicting information."
Later, Daniel P. Henson III, city housing commissioner, explained that the mangled side of the building where bricks hung precariously would be torn away by a crane and that the house could be saved.