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Neighbors of Rock Creek Woods supply the warmth

By Petula Dvorak
Friday, February 12, 2010; B01

The political snowball fight has already begun.

We'll hear about politicians who failed us and government agencies that fell down on the job. The people who run Metro trains and buses and the snowplows will be questioned by investigators.

As we grow desperate to find a guilty party for the $100 million-a-day price of the federal government's shutdown, Mother Nature herself will be hauled to Capitol Hill to testify before a House subcommittee hearing on Snowmageddon. People will Twitter about her ill-fitting power suit.

But before official Washington launches into its predictable disaster blame game, it might be nice to note what went remarkably right during this great whiteout: the way many communities banded together.

All over the region, neighbors looked out for one another, housed those without power, checked on the sick, shoveled out the elderly.

Our compassion and our only-in-Washington ability to organize, delegate and do was apparent and remarkable this past week.

In Rock Creek Woods, a Montgomery County enclave of 76 homes, the neighborhood response began at dawn Saturday, when almost half of the homeowners awoke to no electricity, damaged trees and a blanket of snow.

Valerie Tate, a 6-foot-tall nurse with Annie Lennox-style hair, stomped through the snow with her Labradoodle, Miranda, and noted who was without power.

The day before, she was working to mobilize doctors and nurses headed to Haiti. On Saturday, the effort turned to her block.

Within hours, she and a bunch of neighbors had created a schematic charting everyone's state of affairs.

If you were pink on Renana Keynes's color-coded Google doc, you had power and were staying put; orange meant you had no power and were staying inside your cold cave, and so forth.

They organized people to carve out a walking path for the migration of folks to other homes.

Deciding who would bunk where was more complicated, in some ways, than organizing the seating at a wedding reception. There were the prickly issues of elderly folks with mobility problems, families with young kids, couples with no kids, dogs, cats and vegetarians.

Like a family, the neighborhood is relatively close-knit. It shares the common bond of homes with uncommon architecture.

Designed about 1960 by Charles Goodman, the houses are mid-century modern, essentially glass boxes embedded in the hills and valleys between two creeks, and reside on the National Register of Historic Places.

The first people to move in were pretty hip -- artists and other interesting types who bonded over the sleek, simple lines and floor-to-ceiling windows that made their places so avant-garde.

Many of those hipsters stayed, creating a neighborhood with plenty of elderly folks. And this week, they needed help.

One 90-year-old was carted out on a child's sled, said Neal Cox, a graphic artist who bunked with another family for five days.

One woman was literally trapped inside her home by fallen tree branches around the front door. The neighbors chopped and sawed until she could get out.

Thomas Klein, 81, and his 84-year-old wife, Judith, were one of three couples who moved into a neighbor's house. "My wife made Weiner schnitzel for them; they went to the pharmacy for all of us," Klein said.

The more-mobile residents formed teams to periodically check on the 14 people who stayed in their homes, monitoring for hypothermia, hunger, depression, loneliness. They created a flier with addresses for those without power to visit to warm up or charge a cellphone.

People with no fondness for felines found themselves taking turns caring for Sunny, the convulsing cat, who not only seizes but pees during each episode.

"Yes, the convulsing cat was a tough one," said Tate, 54, who needed to find a place for her small family, which includes the dog. "Miranda got along fine with Bailey the cocker spaniel. But she also had to deal with Zachary. That was difficult. Zachary is a 17-year-old cat who just scared the bejesus out of Miranda."

When someone managed to free a sport-utility vehicle, a shopping run was done for everyone who submitted a list.

Keynes constantly updated her Google spreadsheet, changing the colors as folks moved around or abandoned their homes for a hotel.

Families held huge potlucks and neighbors without power were invited so they could warm up and socialize. The vegetarians served meat. The teetotalers offered the drinkers wine and beer.

When the plow finally came through Monday night, one neighbor walked alongside it for every inch of the journey, making sure all three of the neighborhood streets were well plowed.

By Monday, neighbors joked that the homes, with multiple wives and husbands and kids mixing and matching and partying, began to resemble an Ang Lee film.

Late Monday, as Heather Cox helped make a giant pot of red lentil soup in her borrowed kitchen, she interrupted the perpetual search for utensils when her cellphone beeped with a neighbor's photo of a Pepco truck down the street.

"Pepco is on Ingersol!" she cried, hoisting the phone above her head like the Lombardi Trophy.

Hearing those words, Cox's 5-year-old daughter cried.

"Can't we stay one more night?" she asked.

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com.

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