Bobby L. Robinson looked out the window Wednesday afternoon at the rain and the wind and started to worry: "I saw all these trash cans marching in unison just as if they were soldiers." Then he heard a swooooossssssssh, and the biggest tree he's ever seen, a thick towering oak in his yard, crashed right alongside his house.
"This big, huge tree fell perfectly between my house and my barn," he said. All it did was tear off some gutter and poke through his mini-barn in a few places. "It's a miracle."
Charles County got another lesson in the capriciousness of tornadoes last week as a storm breezed over some neighborhoods but tore through others, dropping tree limbs on roofs and cars.
No one was hurt, and this twister was nowhere near the size or strength of the tornado that wiped out downtown La Plata two years ago.
On a day when remnants of a former hurricane spawned several tornadoes in Virginia, too, even those in the path of the storm were talking about luck.
"Inside my house is okay," Robinson said, despite the roots of the downed tree sticking up six feet or so and the five-foot-deep hole where the tree used to be. "Plus I'm okay!"
The National Weather Service confirmed the storm was a tornado. It touched down about 1 p.m. six miles southwest of La Plata, on Biggs Farm Place, and destroyed several farm buildings, including a grain silo. Many large trees were uprooted, and a recreational van was overturned. The tornado sped into the neighborhood along Winters Drive, dropping limbs onto roofs and trucks, then headed northwest and touched down again about two miles south of Indian Head, near Route 425 and Redhill Drive and Nelson Point Road.
"Last I heard it was headed south-north," Robinson said. "Then somewhere along the way it changed and went east to west. That just picked me up, caught me on the way."
Neighbor after neighbor marveled over the seeming randomness of its path.
In April 2002, Doug Case watched the tornado flying over the tops of the trees along Ripley Road, slipping right by his Charles County home without any damage before cutting through La Plata.
This week, he rushed home from work at Indian Head after hearing reports of a tornado and found he was lucky again: A big catalpa branch came down, but his house was fine, and even the little swing set in the yard held its ground. "I'm relieved," he said Wednesday, looking around his property. "We were at the edge of it."
Case lives right at a dividing line: Along Ripley Road on Wednesday afternoon, there was no sign of a storm. Just before the intersection where Ripley turns into Annapolis Woods Road, people such as Case hurrying home from work could see a few wet leaves and twigs on the road. On the other side of the intersection, huge branches were down, and the power was out.
For those on the wrong side of the line, the storm was terrifying.
Everything got very quiet just before it hit, witnesses said. Neighbors described swimming pool water rising in a three-foot-tall column, houses rattling and wind so loud they couldn't hear their own screams.
Rita Fox said she saw "a wall of black" coming over neighbor Tony Huntt's house. "The clouds were spinning. . . . I can't tell you how scared I was."
"It was roaring," Huntt said. "I was screaming."
Fox said, "There are trees out there twisted like Twizzlers."
The tornado ripped through the neighborhood, tearing up trees by the roots, scattering broken lumber from a barn and leaving battered remnants in the woods.
Shannon Starcher, 11, had to hide under her desk at General Smallwood Middle School after students and staff members heard the tornado warning. When she arrived home from school and saw her street torn up and lined with flashing emergency trucks, she started to cry. She asked about her cat, Tennessee. (He's okay.) "A tree made a hole in our kitchen, and the electricity is out," she said. Her family's house was the most severely damaged, volunteer firefighters said.
Shannon and a third-grader from down the street did their homework together at a neighbor's house while the grown-ups patched things up.
On Wednesday afternoon, chain saws roared and emergency trucks chugged, scanners crackled and volunteer firefighters yelled to one another as they moved limbs away from roofs on Winters Drive. Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative crews worked on power lines overhead. Neighbors wandered from house to house, checking on one another, telling stories about what it was like, comparing damage and offering help. They stood on soggy lawns in the rain, just looking at their homes.
"All my Christmas stuff is up there," Judy Dudley said, watching volunteers from Potomac Heights patching a hole in her roof, while others planned how to get a branch about to fall out of the way.
About 20 homes lost power, but crews had repaired the lines by that evening.
Robinson, the retired director of the Charles County social services department, never lost power in the one-story house he has lived in since 1966. He was watching television Wednesday afternoon when the tornado touched down. "I knew it was raining, cloudy and this kind of thing, a little bit of wind and that kind of stuff," he said. "I was listening to the stuff over in La Plata -- that was far away -- I didn't even think it was coming this way."
But he still feels lucky. "It turned over a swing. It took a cabinet I had, carried it down a hill, set it on a bush. That was about it."
Branches block the windows along the back of his house, he said, but not a single pane was broken. "It just looks miraculous to me."