Laurel sustains millions in damages

Historic building, half of townhouses in one area condemned

Robin Wilkinson cleans up debris from fallen trees outside her home

Mostly unharmed: Robin Wilkinson, 33, a software trainer, cleans up debris from fallen trees outside her home in the Settler's Landing area of North Laurel. About half of the 47 townhouses there were condemned. (Sun photo by Amy Davis / September 25, 2001)


A beloved piece of Laurel history, the Harrison-Beard Building, will be pulled down this morning, a casualty of Monday night's tornado.

The tornado carved a swift but devastating path through Laurel, devouring old neighborhoods and a high school in Prince George's County before smashing a community of townhouses in Howard County.

The decision to demolish Harrison-Beard, built in 1890, was made yesterday afternoon after engineers surveyed the roofless, cracked red brick building at 901 Ninth St.

"It really takes a lot to tear down a historic building," said Laurel City Police Department spokesman Jim Collins. "There was no choice."

The structure once functioned as City Hall and has served as a police and a fire station. Most recently, it housed the Laurel Regional Hospital Auxiliary and a thrift shop.

"Everyone has a memory of that building," Collins said. "I grew up here, and I'm used to seeing it every day. It's going to be a real shock not to see it anymore."

Collins estimated that the city had sustained millions of dollars in damage and said it would take weeks to clean up the wreckage. Late Monday night, Gov. Parris N. Glendening declared a state of emergency in Prince George's and Howard counties.

"Citizens are just overwhelmed at what they are seeing," Collins said. "It was hard to tell how bad it was at night. Now that we're in the daylight, it's just sad."

Working to a background symphony of wood chippers and chainsaws, residents and county employees began cleaning up just after the sun rose yesterday.

A few blocks southwest of the historic district, Vice Principal Robert E. Tafares stood outside Laurel High School directing traffic. The annex that housed the social studies department lost its roof, and cinder blocks were tossed all over the six rooms of the structure.

"It looks like a bomb hit," said Tafares, a retired Air Force colonel. But the social studies teachers were already making plans for conducting classes without their classrooms.

"They're fired up to overcome this," Tafares said. "But I think that's the sentiment of the whole country right now -- we can overcome anything."

Leaves and wood pulp carpeted Tenth Street and Turney Avenue near their intersection in the hard-hit residential neighborhood of Fairlawn. Up and down the streets, residents were picking up tree branches in their yards and, in some cases, out of their homes.

Ron Garrett, 33, stood watch yesterday on a mound of debris in the 1000 block of Tenth St. where his single-family home once stood. The house had been reduced to a tumble of couches, broken pieces of wooden frame and a few barely standing walls.

"Nobody really knows what to do right now," Garrett said yesterday morning. "I'm just kind of standing around waiting for the insurance people. It's unbelievable."

After touching down in Prince George's, the tornado hopped over the county line into Howard and chewed into Settler's Landing, a group of townhouses in North Laurel.

About half of the 47 townhouses in the area were condemned, and about 30 families stayed at the Savage Volunteer Fire Department station Monday night, said M. Sean Kelly, spokesman for Howard County Fire and Rescue Services.

Kelly said he could not yet put a price tag on the damage in Howard County.

The tornado had sheared off the roof and crunched in the sides of the townhouse at 9419 Riverbrink Court, where 19-year-old Heidi Heiderman lived with her mother and her mother's husband.

Heiderman stood on nearby Pilgrim Avenue yesterday afternoon looking up at what remained of the house.

"Look at it -- there's nothing left," she said. "It's like a dollhouse.

Heiderman, wearing borrowed clothes and shoes, said she had barely made it into the basement before the tornado hit.

She and her family ran out of the house minutes later, afraid it would collapse.

As on the Prince George's side of Laurel, no one was seriously injured in Howard County, said Fire Chief Joseph Herr. "It's a miracle -- that's all there is to it," he said.

Howard County Executive James N. Robey, Public Works Director James M. Irvin and County Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, toured the damaged areas yesterday morning.

In addition to hauling away debris, the county had to fend off aggressive vinyl-siding salespeople yesterday, Robey said.

"Folks who were coming out of the woodwork to sell them siding," Robey said, adding that consumer-protection workers arrived to warn residents about the salespeople.

Sun staff writer Larry Carson contributed to this article.

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