This is an excerpt from the book Washington Weather

The Devastating La Plata Tornado

of April 28, 2002


The computer models for Sunday, April 28, 2002 revealed a potentially dangerous setup for severe weather.  The atmospheric ingredients included a moist, southerly flow at the surface ahead of a strong low-pressure center moving through northwestern Pennsylvania, a belt of strong winds aloft crossing the Middle Atlantic region, and an approaching cold front.  As morning rain showers gave way to afternoon sunshine, the volatile air mass was heated, which added further instability to the atmosphere.

During the morning of April 28, the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) in Norman, Oklahoma forecasted a moderate risk of severe weather, including the risk of tornadoes, for much of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Northern Virginia, and Washington, D.C. As thunderstorms moved through West Virginia, the SPC issued a Tornado Watch for the entire Washington area. Soon thereafter, a supercell thunderstorm developed over eastern West Virginia.  It spawned the first tornado at 4:45 p.m. in Shenandoah County, Virginia, and caused major damage. Over two dozen homes and farm buildings were demolished, and 75 other homes, businesses, and farm structures were damaged.

As the rotating thunderstorm raced east through north central Virginia at 40-50 mph, it produced hail and hurricane-force wind gusts in Culpeper and Fauquier counties, with golf ball-size hail reported near Dale City, Virginia.  When the supercell thunderstorm crossed the Potomac River around 7 p.m., a second, stronger tornado touched down along the southwest flank of the storm in Charles County.

The tornado stayed on the ground for nearly 70 miles as it sped along at 45-55 mph through Charles and Calvert Counties in Maryland.  It then crossed the Chesapeake Bay and continued its rampage through much of Dorchester County on the Maryland Eastern Shore. Observers reported seeing twin tornadoes near the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant and over the Chesapeake Bay.  In addition, baseball- and softball-sized hail was observed in the vicinity of Pomfret, La Plata, and Hughesville, Maryland.  (The supercell thunderstorm that produced the tornadoes and hail in Maryland tracked from West Virginia to the Atlantic Ocean!)

One of the hardest hit areas was concentrated around the town of La Plata in Charles County. Parts of the quiet, southern Maryland community could only be described as a war zone. There was massive destruction in the downtown section, including the town’s shopping center and business establishments – located adjacent to the intersection of Routes 6 and 301.  Winds were so violent that some homes were completely swept off their foundations and trees were stripped of their bark.  La Plata bank receipts were found 70 miles away by a man in Seaford, Delaware.

The storm and tornado damaged or destroyed 860 homes and 194 businesses in southern Maryland.  Five lives were lost and at least 120 were injured.  Property damage was estimated in excess of $100 million.

Officials from the National Weather Service said the tornado’s winds fluctuated from 100 mph (F1 on the Fujita Scale) to nearly 260 mph (F4 on the Fujita Scale) during its 90-minute life cycle. Tragically, the tornado peaked to F4 intensity as it moved through the town of La Plata.  The tornado was F4 strength for only one minute while it moved through downtown La Plata.  Note: The National Weather Service initially rated the tornado an F5 on the Fujita Scale. However, subsequent surveys of the damage by structural engineers and meteorologists revealed the destruction was more consistent with damage caused by an F4 tornado, with winds of 207 to 260 mph.


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