Remembering the 2002 La Plata Tornado and the Resiliency of Our Business Community

Posted by: Economic Development Team on Wednesday, April 20, 2022

On Sunday, April 28, 2002, an F4 tornado touched down in Southern Maryland and ripped through the Town of La Plata, destroying much of the historic downtown. Our Deputy Director, Marcia Keeth, had just started a new career in economic development, and in this blog, she reflects on how our community came together and the collaboration that turned a tragedy into the thriving downtown that exists 20 years later.

 

In Marcia’s Words

I was living in Waldorf on the day that the Town of La Plata was struck by a powerful tornado.  I wasn’t aware of what had happened; I just recall looking outside around 7pm and seeing a very greenish sky.  It was weird.  Shortly after that, a friend called and told us about the tornado.  He indicated there had been some damage, but I had no idea how much.

I had started a new job as the marketing director with the Charles County Economic Development Commission just three months earlier.  I was new to the field of economic development.  My background was in marketing and advertising.  So that Monday, the 29th, when my boss and I joined a  tour of the Town to see the damage, I was not only stunned by what I saw, I was confused as to my role in how to help.

 

Collaborating Organizations

Initially, our focus was to collaborate with the Chamber of Commerce to identify the businesses that had been affected.  Many were.  From totally destroyed buildings, to damaged but repairable facilities, to impassable streets, it was clear that many La Plata businesses were going to be closed for some time while disaster recovery took place.

Luckily, many of the organizations that were in a position to help were all located together at the College of Southern Maryland, including our office, the Small Business Development Center, and the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development.  That last one included our current EDD director, Kelly Robertson-Slagle.   Working side by side, we were able to coordinate our relief activities and support each other’s efforts to help our businesses.  It was an amazing collaboration.

There were so many others who came together to immediately begin recovery – private entities, nonprofits, and government agencies.  Elected officials and county staff worked around the clock.  Briefings and coordination meetings were scheduled; temporary facilities were created; food was provided for clean-up workers; and jurisdictions from all over the region sent assistance.  Within days, the Town buzzed with clean up and recovery activities. 


Finding A Way To Help

One evening just a few days after the tornado, the owners of what was then Casey Jones Restaurant held a meeting of all the businesses in Town to discuss recovery.  Their building was damaged but repairable, though the rumors were that the restaurant had been destroyed.  The owner announced that a local construction company, Facchina Construction, was going to create a temporary office park where businesses could locate while their buildings were repaired.  During her presentation, she said something like, “we have worked so hard to build this [restaurant] business, and now with the rumors that our building is gone, our customers may never come back.” 

That’s when it hit me.  I knew what my role was going to be to help with recovery.

 

We’re Open For Business

I put together an advertising campaign to let people know what businesses were open and operating, where they were located, and to encourage residents to continue supporting businesses during the recovery.  The theme was, “We’re Open for Business.” Local advertising firm Rotman Creative Group contributed graphics.  I negotiated special newspaper and radio rates.  I wrote ad copy that reflected exactly what that businesswoman had said, something like, “We have temporarily lost our buildings, we don’t want to lose our customers too.  Please support our La Plata merchants.”

Every week, I would contact businesses for updates, and every Friday on the back page of the local paper we ran an ad with a list showing the status of businesses — who was open and where.  Ad copy and radio commercials continued for some time, encouraging the public to support businesses. 

Of course, the real work was in the cleanup, reconstruction, disaster assistance, and other recovery efforts, all which went on for weeks and months – even more.  It was amazing to watch so many people come together and work so hard, so generously, and so selflessly for the community.  It was an inspiring time and demonstrated the best of the human spirit.

When the tornado struck, there was concern that if businesses left during the cleanup, they would find a new home somewhere else and never come back to La Plata.  But thanks to a collaborative effort that involved the public and private sector working together, local businesses were able to recover, make a new start, and La Plata began a new era that has evolved into the wonderful community it is today. 

Please join the Town of La Plata on Thursday, April 28 for the 20th Anniversary Tornado Ceremony at 6:30 pm on the concert lawn at Town Hall.  Following the ceremony, the community will enjoy a concert from the US Navy Band Commodores.

For more information, please contact Special Events Coordinator Colleen Wilson at 301-934-8421 or cwilson@townoflaplata.org.

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