After tornado, Amish rebuild in a hurry

Randall Gockley, director of Lancaster County’s Emergency Management Agency, said the rapid reconstruction of the Salisbury Township school was the largest-scale rebuilding he had seen in 28 years with the agency.

WHITE HORSE, Pa. - The schoolhouse was ripped to pieces.

The group of local residents who had gathered at the site - fewer than 90 minutes after an unprecedented tornado had rained destruction along a five-mile path - were "dealing with the shock," recalled John Smucker, the secretary of the White Hall School board and the father of four students.

On the site they found two seesaws, a green swing set rusted with age, and a small stucco-walled bathroom. Nearby lay the leveled Amish school.

"We were trying to figure out what we were going to do when daylight came," Smucker said.

It didn't take them long. Less than a week later, the Salisbury Township school is almost rebuilt.

The Amish are known for their post-disaster rebuilding skills, but one veteran Lancaster County emergency official, who has been around almost three decades, says this is the most impressive such effort he has seen.

Under a clear blue sky Tuesday morning, the buzz of power tools and the sharp rap of hammers filled the air as two dozen men, some wearing signature straw hats and tool belts, placed siding on the walls and installed doors.

New windows gleamed in the sunlight. The roof has been on since the weekend. A few horses, with buggies attached, waited by a fence.

Hundreds of volunteers also have been busily rebuilding other structures.

About 50 buildings were damaged, and houses, barns, cemeteries, a church, and chicken houses were among other structural causalities of Wednesday night's storm.

The twister, with winds up to 125 mph, was the first tornado of such strength to hit Pennsylvania in February in records dating to 1950, according to the Storm Prediction Center. The storm caused an estimated $8 million in damage.

The school should be ready for its roughly 30 students next week. The children, who are in grades one through eight, are taking lessons in a private home while their schoolhouse is repaired.

Smucker, owner of Forest Ridge Builders, is leading the rebuilding of the school. Another parent is a cabinetmaker and will supply storage space.

"When someone has a skill, we try to put it to use," Smucker said.

Randall Gockley, director of Lancaster County's Emergency Management Agency, said he was used to the community's coming together to rebuild a burned-down barn in three or four days. But he said this was the largest-scale rebuilding he recalls in his 28 years with the agency.

"The tornado struck at 7:38 p.m. By 7:30 the next morning, they had hundreds of Amish, who came from all over Lancaster County and outside of Lancaster County," he said. "This is the way they do things. They really come together as a community and work to solve the problem."

More than 3,000 volunteers have come to help, said Sam Stoltzfus, president of the White Horse Fire Company. The fire station has served as a command center for volunteers. Residents set up a portable barn to feed and warm their helpers.

"There is quite a bit of work left to do," Stoltzfus said. But he estimates that by the end of the week, a majority of the rebuilding will be done.

"We have an awesome community," he said. "It's actually kind of overwhelming, even if you live in the area, the amount of people who showed up and the amount of work that got done in a short period of time."

The Mennonite Disaster Service is also collecting money for people who are rebuilding. It is accepting online donations on its website (http://www.mds.mennonite.net/home/) or sent to it by mail at 583 Airport Rd., Lititz, Pa. 17543.

mbond@philly.com

610-313-8207@MichaelleBond