They sat on benches at the makeshift shelter, still slightly dazed and pensively chewing pizza handed out by relief workers. If they didn't have the evidence on their smart phones, tiny pictures showing roofless apartment buildings, downed trees and crushed cars, it might have seemed like a middle-of-the-night dream.
The storm that cut through Northeast Baltimore and Parkville early Wednesday morning was as brief as it was violent. With wind gusting perhaps as high as 80 miles per hour, the storm was over seemingly in a flash but left behind a swath of destruction and upended lives.
"I was watching TV, and you could hear the wind picking up," Sherry Campbell, 39, said of the storm that left nearly 250 residents such as her temporarily homeless. "It sounded like a Mack truck. Everything started vibrating and everything went black. Then all of a sudden, it went quiet." Campbell, who is studying to be a medical assistant, was evacuated from her apartment at the Mount Pleasant Heights complex, which, along with neighboring Dutch Village, took the brunt of the storm. Sixteen buildings, with a total of 54 rental units, were condemned and 359 units sustained damage. County officials said 92 homes in the Parkville area were damaged, three severely.
The storm struck around 1:30 a.m., and the National Weather Service is investigating whether a tornado touched down. It is expected to make the determination Thursday. While the storm knocked out power to more than 45,000 households, uprooted trees, tossed cars and outdoor furniture, and shattered windows, just three people, including one child, suffered minor injuries, officials said.
"It's an absolute miracle that we're not here talking about serious injury and death," said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who with Gov. Martin O'Malley and other city and state officials toured the two rental communities. "Whole sections of the apartment complex were lifted off and blown away. I saw two-by-fours piercing the sides of buildings like spears."
Rawlings-Blake declared a local state of emergency in the affected area, imposing a curfew from 5 p.m. Wednesday to 7 a.m. Thursday. No one other than authorized personnel was allowed in the area bounded by Northern Parkway to the north, Pioneer Drive to the west, Pinewood Avenue to the south, and Mclean Boulevard to the east.
Anthony Guglielmi, chief spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department, said the curfew was issued mainly for the safety of residents and the protection of their property. Debris was hanging from trees, the power is out "and it is extremely dark," he said.
"People have a lot of property in their homes, and we want to make sure we secure that," Guglielmi said. "They've gone through enough trauma as it is."
He said police received reports of people trespassing through houses, but none of any thefts.
As displaced city residents headed off to spend the night in hotels, with friends or relatives, or at a public school building, it was unclear when they would be allowed to return to their homes. With utility workers and building inspectors working through the night, city officials said they planned to make a determination on Thursday when it was safe for residents to return. By Wednesday night, BGE was reporting 590 customers without power, nearly all in Baltimore.
Many displaced residents spent the day at the Mount Pleasant Ice Arena, where city and state officials provided food and assistance for those evacuated. A shelter for displaced Baltimore County residents was established at the Bykota Senior Center in Towson but closed late Wednesday morning after only a handful of residents stopped in.
Reginald Scriber, a deputy housing commissioner in Baltimore, said the city was working quickly to transfer the vouchers of residents who had subsidized housing in the apartment complexes to other areas. The managers of the complexes were trying to move residents of the condemned buildings into vacant units, he said. The city established a disaster relief fund and was directing contributions to the account at Harbor Bank of Maryland.
Gwendolyn White-McMillan, 51, and her extended family left the ice rink to spend the night at a Comfort Inn, the townhouse she rented at Dutch Village having been condemned. She had been watching television when she heard a rumbling noise on her patio, followed by what sounded like an explosion.
"My husband said, 'Our door is out, our whole door is out,'" she said. Her husband, Marvin McMillan, pried the door out of the frame and they ran out to "devastation all around," she said. A ceiling fell on one neighbor, who was taken to the hospital; debris was scattered everywhere.
"Cars were on top of each other. My huge glass patio table, six chairs, an umbrella — they're all gone," said White-McMillan, who thinks the "explosion" she heard was the table shattering.
Her two daughters, plus the boyfriend of one, and her two grandchildren live elsewhere in the complex and were also evacuated, though their homes were not condemned.
"It was a whiteout of wind. You couldn't see nothing," said Kelley Juan, 33, the boyfriend of White-McMillan's daughter. "There was no warning."
The storm came as a complete surprise to most. The National Weather Service had issued a severe thunderstorm warning at 1:02 a.m. for Baltimore City and County, as well as parts of Carroll, Howard, Anne Arundel, Prince George's, Harford, Calvert and St. Mary's counties. Radar images indicated the line of thunderstorms crossing the region could produce "damaging winds in excess of 60 mph," the warning said.
"This is a dangerous storm," the weather service said. "If you are in its path, prepare immediately for damaging wind gusts, frequent cloud-to-ground lightning. Move indoors to a sturdy building, and stay away from windows."
But because of the hour, many did not hear the warning.
Laura Dixon sat at the shelter on Wednesday with a blanket over her knees and bits of foam insulation in her hair. She'd had a particularly rude awakening that morning — she had been in bed when the sound of the storm woke her and she found herself staring at a big, gray cloud.
"My whole ceiling peeled like a sardine can," said Dixon, 44. In addition to the cloud, she saw "sheetrock falling and insulation up to my knees."
Victoria Rose, 28, and her husband, Matthew Moore, 23, thought it was an earthquake. They had just moved to their Dutch Village townhouse in September, for Rose to start a new job as a math teacher at nearby W.E.B. DuBois High School.
As they walked around their neighborhood, Rose said, "every apartment complex had something, the roof or windows missing. One of the trees was on top of one of the SUVs on the street, the windows blown out. Parts of the roof were in a tree.
"We were really lucky nothing happened to our townhouse at all," she said.
In the county, residents were similarly grateful for near-misses.
Lelia Huber's white, two-story home in the 1700 block of Wycliffe Ave. was among those condemned. A large tree from her backyard fell between her house and a neighbor's, but still put a hole in her roof and damaged siding, fencing and windows.
"Thank God, it went in the middle of the houses," said Huber, who left her home of 49 years to stay with a daughter-in-law.
On Oakleigh Road, a large oak tree had toppled and caved in part of the roof of a single-story house owned by The ARC of Baltimore, an agency that provides services for the developmentally disabled. The three women who lived in the house, along with a caretaker who spent nights there, found shelter with a neighbor, Cecelia Strough, who gave them tea and sodas. After about an hour, the women were put up in a hotel.
Later in the morning, an insurance agent, an ARC employee and a BGE crew chief assessed the damage to the house and a white picket fence. The front door bore a building inspector's orange sign, with the word "Danger" in large letters, forbidding anyone to enter.
"At this point, all we have to do is put it back together," said Mike Pollutra, ARC's facilities director, indicating that the house was salvageable.
Back in the city, the Davis brothers — Carl, 48, and Ernest, 53 — could only shake their heads at their misfortune. They live in a basement apartment that flooded after a recent rainstorm, only to find themselves Wednesday morning diving to the floor for fear of the storm blowing out their windows. Both are diabetic, and evacuated with just the clothes they were wearing and their medications.
Still, they are anxious to get back.
"There's no place like home," Ernest said with a smile, though he adds that he now has a new name for it: "Mount Unpleasant."
Baltimore Sun reporters Raven Hill, Yeganeh June Torbati, Frank Roylance and Peter Hermann contributed to this article.
Donations to assist those displaced by the storm can be made to: Disaster Relief Fund for Northeast Baltimore, care of Harbor Bank of Maryland, 25 W. Fayette St., Baltimore, MD 21201.