The violent windstorms that ripped apart three working-class neighborhoods Tuesday were classified yesterday as tornadoes, whose destructiveness was muted by the widespread vacancies in the poor communities they hit.
Of the 125 homes damaged in the storm, 36 were not occupied, city officials said. Many of the vacant city-owned buildings in the West Baltimore neighborhood of Sandtown were scheduled for demolition.
On street after street, large flatbed trucks lined nose-to-tail as residents moved their belongings from their houses and apartments for the trip to storage. Front-end loaders droned as they gingerly scooped debris, bricks, Formstone and rubble.
"Somebody said this was God's urban renewal . . .," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said, as he watched the cleanup on East North Avenue yesterday afternoon.
Families displaced by the storm were put in temporary residences by the American Red Cross, and federal, state and local officials toured the area of destruction offering solace, but little direct financial aid.
The task of repairing the damage is falling largely on the government as most in the hardest-hit areas had little insurance.
A survey by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) indicates that only 5 percent of the affected families are insured. Seventy percent are renters, and 80 percent have incomes below the poverty level, FEMA said.
"This is not just about the bricks and the mortar on the ground, but the people who live here," said Rep. Kweisi Mfume, whose 7th Congressional District includes the areas hit by the storms.
Mr. Mfume, along with U.S. Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, federal Housing Secretary Henry G. Cisneros and FEMA director James Lee Witt, accompanied city officials on a tour of the East Baltimore neighborhood.
Officials from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development have promised to replace federal housing vouchers that the city will give to displaced residents who need to temporarily rent homes. By late yesterday, neither HUD nor FEMA had pledged additional funds.
Once FEMA's preliminary damage report is complete, some expect Gov. William Donald Schaefer to ask for a presidential disaster declaration. Such a designation would enable disaster victims to qualify for federal aid to rebuild or demolish the damaged houses.
Mr. Mfume said he hoped to speak to President Clinton late yesterday. "I think the president will understand the peculiarity of the situation -- the number of people that are uninsured that have to put their lives back together," Mr. Mfume said.
Besides temporary shelter, the other services offered by the Red Cross include vouchers for food and clothes, rental trucks to haul household goods, and temporary storage facilities for residents' belongings.
Citywide, 40 houses were condemned and at least 12 more were demolished or slated for demolition, said Daniel P. Henson III, city housing commissioner. In addition to the stretch of houses along North Avenue and those in Sandtown-Winchester, several houses in Harlem Park were damaged.
Wrecking crews fanned out in areas hardest hit by Tuesday's storms -- West Lafayette Street, East North Avenue and West Lanvale Street.
National Weather Service investigators found evidence of five separate tornadoes -- two accounting for the main damage in Baltimore and three in Harford County:
* On Hooker Mill Road, where winds estimated at 60-70 mph toppled trees and slightly damaged homes about 2:40 p.m.
* On Goat Hill Road, where winds of 60-70 mph knocked down pine trees about 2:43 p.m.
* In Perryman, where winds estimated at 75-90 mph caused extensive damage to a Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. generating plant that was under construction.
The strongest twister was the one that hit the 1200 block of E. North Ave., with winds estimated at 80-100 mph. The city's west-side twister was estimated at 70-90 mph.
Since the storm swept across Baltimore, city cleanup crews have worked nearly nonstop at a cost of $8,000 an hour, said George G. Balog, director of public works. It costs $12,000 an hour to clean up after a typical heavy snowstorm.
"We saw dangerous structures, roofs that were demolished and shaky structures," Mr. Balog said. Roof damage was the main problem with most of the affected buildings slated for demolition.
4 For Albert Bailer, the task was not an easy one.
As operator of a 40-ton hydraulic crane with a claw bucket, his unenviable task was to tear away a damaged portion of a wall at 1230 E. North Ave. but to leave most of the wall and roof of the house intact.
"It's tricky," said Mr. Bailer, who works for Tidewater Equipment Co. in Dundalk and has demolished buildings for 24 years. "It's not just taking it down. We want to save the roof and not damage any part of the house."
The house was one of nearly a dozen three-story brick rowhouses on East North Avenue that were damaged. Seven houses on North Avenue are slated for demolition, and the others are condemned.
From the cab of the crane and using jeweler-like precision, Mr. Bailer gingerly guided the claw bucket behind veneer and a layer of loose bricks, careful not to dig too deep into the wall.
With Mr. Bailer patiently at the crane's helm, the entire 10-by-50-foot wall of the third floor of the house was removed with hardly so much as a joist disturbed.
"The hard part was just getting the teeth of the bucket behind the wall and closing the bucket," Mr. Bailer said. "You have to keep inching like that across the entire wall until it's down. You're just so intent on what you're doing.
"When you're just tearing down a building you can just go at it."
Earlier, Mr. Bailer's crane demolished rowhouses at 1220 and 1222 E. North Ave., both of which were Formstone and therefore harder to demolish.
"That Formstone holds everything together like iron," Mr. Bailer said.
Formstone appeared about 1940 and boomed in the postwar years, particularly in older neighborhoods with homes built from unfired brick that required frequent repainting or sealing to keep water out.
Hauling away debris
As Mr. Bailer tore the houses down, Psalm Drummond was one of a long string of drivers in 10-ton dump trucks along North Avenue waiting to haul debris to the Patapsco landfill.
"It's terrible, it's the first we've ever had like this," Mr. Drummond said as he watched bulldozers load brick, wood and concrete into trucks.
Often mixed among the debris were beds, bed linen and toys.
"That's what's hard to see, when you see someone's personal belongings," Mr. Drummond said. "That's what I don't like."
In the houses scheduled for demolition, families and friends carried out belongings. Frank Epps helped a friend at 1224 E. North Ave. carry his possessions to a waiting van.
"You've just got to thank the Lord that no one was in there. Everyone's safe. The crane will take care of it now," Mr. Epps said. "There's nothing you can do about nature."