By Victoria MacDonald
Berwyn resident Victoria-María MacDonald is a public historian, writer, and retired UMD faculty member.
For weeks, the droning sound of chainsaws and wood chippers started early in the morning and lasted until dusk. After cranes carefully removed limbs and even entire trees off homes, blue tarps dotted the roofs and draped over entire sides of homes in the Berwyn neighborhood. In late fall, a felicitous integration of insurance money, contractors and homeowners finally began to patch what had looked like a tarp nation up and down Berwyn Road. Dumpsters parked in front of homes like so many iron caskets holding the discarded remnants of families’ lives. Most of those steel containers signaled catastrophic damage.
It has been six months since a massive storm hit College Park last July, and in the Berwyn and Lakeland neighborhoods, we are still in the long process of rebuilding and healing. We’re living with fewer tarps, and the stumps of uprooted trees are being ground down, but visible and invisible signs of trauma linger here. In the initial month or two after the storm, residents looked anxiously at the sky and their still-standing trees when summer storms kicked up; strong winds sparked a collective form of anxiety that permeated the neighborhood. People whose homes remained largely intact were grateful the damage was not worse, though thoughts lurked in the back of their minds that their luck might also run out. Some limbs still hung up in trees could fall with a brisk breeze — maybe onto sheds, homes, pets, or even us. While it was the wind that caused so much damage, it is our love-hate relationship with the trees, themselves, that marked the storm.
College Park does a lot to ensure that the city has a healthy tree canopy, but for many of us, the July 12th storm changed and colored the relationship we have with trees. The rational side of our brains might have told us that the storm was a once-in-a-thousand-year event. But the emotional side of our brains — the side that experienced sweltering days without power, the damage to our homes and the prolonged closure of the Berwyn Park playground — was tuned to the danger our trees might hold in store.
Because the storm was localized in such a small area meant that the media’s interest and attention was fleeting. Indeed, friends and family members who personally saw the depth and breadth of damage were shocked at the lack of attention beyond our city limits. Was it because College Park is in Prince George’s County? While comparisons between our county and Montgomery County run deep and can sometimes provoke historical antagonisms based on race and class, if these 100 mph winds had sliced through Chevy Chase, I suspect that coverage would have been more in-depth and sustained.
Repairs to some homes are wrapping up, but the status of others remains unclear. On Potomac Avenue, a home was leveled to its foundation and has yet to be reframed. Along Patuxent and Osage, at least two homes appear in need of major repairs. Berwyn is a caring community, but residents here also respect privacy and personal pride. In the case of total losses like this, though, more proactive assistance from caring neighbors is sometimes called for. And this sort of assistance — from people with a genuine interest in the strength of the neighborhood — is not easy to find at the civic level.
I am interested in forming a group of neighbors to fill in the gaps left by governance. Americans have always organized to support one another when government assistance falls short. That is how democracy develops and works. If you are interested in joining a neighbors’ collective for Berwyn restoration, please email me at email@example.com.