Ronnie Taylor and John Sherbert collect important papers from Sherbert's property the morning after a tornado struck La Plata on April 29, 2002. (Andrea Bruce/The Washington Post)

When the students at Archbishop Neale School in La Plata gathered for morning prayers Tuesday, their minds were on Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla.

“The kids wanted to pray for those children,” said Peggy Howard, principal of the Catholic school. The Neale students felt a connection: On April 28, 2002, their own school was destroyed by a tornado, a twister that killed five people in Southern Maryland.

“The whole thing comes back to you,” Peggy said. “I guess it always will. When you hear about a school, when you hear about those children, it’s heart-wrenching.”

Peggy was at home Monday afternoon when she heard about the tragedy in Oklahoma. “They were showing the pictures on the news,” she said. “That brought back memories of it. It was just the horror, but a double horror, because it was a Monday, when children were in school, whereas ours was 7 in the evening on a Sunday, which made a big difference. Just thinking about that, thinking about how blessed we were.  . . .

No children were killed in La Plata, the difference between a Sunday evening and a Monday afternoon.

Aerial view of the destruction in La Plata. (James M. Thresher/The Washington Post)

Roy Hale, the mayor of La Plata, will never forget that April evening 11 years ago. “It had been a very mild day,” said Roy, who back then was on the City Council. “It rained a little bit, but the sun came out following that. I was home mowing my yard and didn’t really hear the initial forecast for a tornado. Then, very quickly, the skies changed, and the storm was upon us.”

The tornado — later rated an F-4 — roared into La Plata. It split in two as it neared Roy’s house, damaging homes nearby but sparing his.

Peggy’s house, four miles north of La Plata, was spared, too, although it was pummeled by hail the size of softballs.

“We had the TV on, trying to figure out what was going on,” she remembered. “Then I got a phone call from the alarm people saying someone was in the school building. I kept saying to my husband, ‘We have to get down there. Somebody broke into the building.’ ”

The roads were so blocked by debris and emergency vehicles that they didn’t get to Neale until about 9:30 p.m. That’s when Peggy saw that there was no building to break into. The school was almost completely destroyed.

So was much of La Plata’s downtown.

Said Roy: “Having been in the Navy for 24 years, in a couple of war zones, that’s exactly what it reminded me of: that a bomb had been dropped in the middle of La Plata. In one instant, everything is the way it’s been for decades or for a hundred years. Just minutes later, they’re gone.”

The 8 tornadoes recorded in D.C.

Even so — and even though five people were killed in Charles and Calvert counties — people considered themselves lucky. It could have been worse.

It could have been like the tornado that struck La Plata on Nov. 9, 1926, a Tuesday. Sixty-one students and two teachers were huddled in their two-room schoolhouse when it was picked up by the twister and flung into a grove of trees, killing 13 children.

Mayor Hale said that after the 2002 tornado, the town installed early warning sirens. He’s noticed that they seem to sound more often lately, as severe weather becomes more common. The downtown is rebuilt, and he said you’d never know that a tornado had decimated it.

It took nearly two years, but a new Archbishop Neale School was built. It has a feature that wasn’t in the old school: a reinforced hallway, designed with the help of FEMA, that students rush to whenever there’s a drill.

Principal Howard said the students have asked to donate money from a future tag sale to the pupils in Oklahoma. None of her school’s kids was at Neale 11 years ago. They don’t remember the 2002 tornado, but they know their school’s history.

“Though they were not here at the time, they knew people were in turmoil,” she said.

One memory of La Plata’s 2002 tornado sticks in Peggy’s mind. The day after the storm, and for the next week, students would come with their parents to Archbishop Neale, even though the school was a pile of bricks and splintered wood that had been condemned.

“They wanted to go to their lockers,” Peggy said. “They wanted to go back in and get their books.”

Twitter: @johnkelly

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