Tornado tossed dream into doubt


LA PLATA - So much change at once.

Bill and Jennifer DeAtley were in one of those in-between periods where young couples find themselves when the once-charming starter home no longer accommodates a growing family.

With a second child due in a month, the couple was eagerly awaiting the construction of their dream house on a 1 1/2 -acre lot several miles away. Finally, they would have the closet space they coveted, a kitchen island and breakfast nook, and their own bathroom with a whirlpool tub.

"No more sharing it with rubber duckies," said Jennifer DeAtley, 28, an elementary school reading specialist.

But as scores of families like the DeAtleys have sadly learned, the powerful tornado that hit their town and their lives last Sunday exposed the uncertainty of the future - and the frailty of plans.

The fate of hundreds of damaged houses now lies in the hands of an army of insurance adjusters that converged on the area after the deadly twister slammed through the area, causing five storm-related deaths. Many of the homes might be bulldozed if they are declared too heavily damaged.

Other properties will be rebuilt, repaired and restored with the help of federal grants and low-interest loans aimed at helping the disaster's uninsured and underinsured victims.

But that will take time, and dream homes will be put on hold.

The DeAtleys needed to clinch the sale of their modest 50-year-old Cape Cod, which was a contingency of building the new Colonial home on a cul-de-sac, before they could celebrate. On April 26, they got the good news from their buyer's home inspector that it was structurally sound. "It was only some termites. What a relief," Jennifer DeAtley remembered thinking.

Two days later, a Sunday, they had removed the "For Sale" sign when Bill DeAtley, 29, an accountant working for Charles County, noticed clouds whipping in different directions and tinged an odd, tan-brown color.

He didn't know it immediately, but what he had spotted was a tornado that would obliterate downtown La Plata and change his life in ways large and small.

To the couple, who had huddled in the basement with their 3-year-old son, the damage went beyond their smashed cars and cracks in the home's plaster and mortar - it blurred the clarity of their immediate future.

Now they wondered: Was the house still structurally sound, and where would they live while they waited to find out? Would the buyer wait for repairs or walk away, taking with him his checkbook and - at least for now - their ability to contract to build the new house.

Questions also arose about details that had once seemed mundane.

When an insurance adjuster told the couple he would mail them a document, Bill DeAtley's response was, "How?"

Their mailbox had been destroyed in the tornado.

Life in a small town

Bill DeAtley normally plays in a men's baseball league on Sundays, a throwback to the days when he pitched on the Salisbury State team on the Eastern Shore.

The couple had met at the college, where he - an earnest and friendly man - studied accounting and she majored in elementary education and hoped to one day have children of her own.

They ended up in Charles County, in part because they have relatives who live nearby.

The county seemed to strike a nice urban-rural balance: an easy drive to Washington but also offering a small town's pride and identity of its own. Everything seemed to be within walking distance: the hospital, the library, the restaurant where they would go Thursdays for "Pizza Night."

When their son Parker was born, they simply carried him across the street from Civista Medical Center to their brick home.

Most of last Sunday was routine. At dinner time, Parker was watching a video and Jennifer DeAtley was putting laundry away. Her husband was home, too, because his baseball game had been rained out. He was watching television in another room.

Little warning

Almost simultaneously, Bill DeAtley watched a tornado warning being broadcast and saw lightning strikes and the unusual, spinning clouds.

Racing to the basement, the family spent the next long minutes with the lights flickering and hearing sounds they could not explain. There were howling winds and the shattering glass that turned out to be the front storm door and their house and car windows.

They heard a thud that was probably the large maple tree that collapsed across the back yard. There were other noises as roof tile peeled away, the sunroom wall cracked, phone and electrical wires fell, and Parker's swing set blew into a neighbor's yard.

Over the next several days, the couple would find unexplained pieces of insulation in the yard, or stumble onto new cracks around the house or in the garage. "Hey, look at this one," Bill DeAtley would yell.

Several days after the tornado, a group of Amish men, canvassing the neighborhood, arrived at their doorstep. They chopped up the largest of the fallen tree limbs covering the back yard, stacking the wood in a neat pile.

"They did it out of the goodness of their hearts," Bill said.

But the family had entered a limbo they found most unsettling. They continued to inspect damage and collect their possessions in boxes, all the while looking slightly dazed and bewildered.

One of the first items Bill DeAtley had gotten out of the house was an autographed poster of a group of Washington Redskins, his favorite football team.

"It has sentimental value, so I took it to my mother-in-law's," he said. "It was on a wall where a window had blown out, and it could have been rained on." He also worried about looters.

The family was sleeping temporarily at the nearby home of Jennifer DeAtley's mother, then leaving Parker with a baby sitter and driving to their home to organize their belongings.

"I'm a teacher. I like every day to be planned and organized," Jennifer DeAtley said. "Right now, everything is up in the air."

Adjusters in demand

After the tornado, dozens of volunteers and professional aid workers roamed La Plata streets offering food, building assistance and other services. But few were in as much demand as the insurance adjusters.

For those with homeowner policies, the adjusters represented the potential to be made whole. They would arrive at a home, sometimes with a digital camera hanging from their necks, assess the damage and negotiate with contractors to fix it, if possible.

Most homeowners hesitated to make any repairs without the adjusters' input, for fear that they wouldn't be reimbursed.

Anyone walking around town with a legal pad or clipboard last week was likely to be asked, "Are you an insurance adjuster?"

The first insurance representative to arrive at the DeAtleys' yard Tuesday was there about their car policy.

"Which do you want first, the good news or the bad news?" asked Steve Harris of Safeco Insurance.

The initial bad news, which they heard first, was that storm damage to the 1997 Isuzu Rodeo - just paid off - might have rendered it a total loss. All the glass had been blown out by the high winds.

But the company later revised the assessment and said it would pay to fix the broken windows and do other repairs. And Jennifer DeAtley's 1999 Toyota Corolla could be fixed, too, Harris told them.

House inspection

The DeAtleys considered their meeting with their homeowner policy representative more critical. Not only was the fate of their existing home at stake, but so was their planned move.

"So much is riding on this," said Jennifer DeAtley.

Mark Caro of Montgomery Insurance Co. of Charlotte, N.C., arrived shortly after Harris left Tuesday and immediately began surveying the property. He wore slacks, a polo shirt and a serious expression, and he carried a form with "Notice of Loss" printed in block letters at the top.

He looked at the sunroom, where the wall and floor had separated, and said, "This whole addition has me a little worried."

He studied Parker's relatively unscathed bedroom, where a Buzz Lightyear poster remained on the wall.

Outside, Jennifer DeAtley told Caro, "There's Parker's swing set," pointing to crunched metal partly in her yard and partly in the neighbor's.

Caro advised the couple to detail all their losses, including Parker's toys.

But answers about the condition of the house were hard to come by. Caro said a structural engineer would need to inspect the home later in the week to be certain it hadn't shifted slightly on its foundation.

If it had shifted, the home might have to be bulldozed.

Bill DeAtley took a deep breath. "This is just up and down like a roller coaster," he said

The next few days, however, brought some relief.

Rent is covered

They secured a two-bedroom apartment - insurance will cover the $1,000-a-month rent - that the family hopes to move into this week.

Later in the week, word arrived that the engineer's inspection didn't find structural damage and that the buyer, a Georgia man, might still be willing to buy the property, even if he has to wait months for repairs.

First, though, he wants to see the damage himself on e-mailed photographs of the home.

After a nightmarish week, the news all meant the dream house was still in the picture.

Bill DeAtley was almost too tired to rejoice. "You sit down in a chair for a minute, and you just fall asleep," he said.

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