Area in 'a Daze' After Tornadoes
Storms Damage 140 Homes, Cause Floods and Leave Thousands Without Power

By Michael Laris and Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 10, 2008

Tornadoes damaged more than 140 homes in Stafford County and toppled trees and battered houses in Fort Washington early yesterday.

Many residents in the England Run North community woke up yesterday in the homes of neighbors who had taken them in after a tornado cut a four-mile swath through Stafford. The National Weather Service said wind speeds reached 120 mph.

"We're all in a daze. We're all . . . the word is numb. It doesn't sink in that you're not going back to your house. You keep seeing it again, over and over and over," said Stafford resident Sydney McDonald, who stood yesterday with her sleeping 3-year-old son in her arms. He had stayed asleep while she and her husband rushed their children down to their basement late Thursday night and bunched them together for safety. A piece of debris shot through the wall above one child's bed, "just like a knife," she said.

"The entire outside wall is gone. It came right off. It's just open," said her husband, Jim McDonald.

Luis Rosa, a Weather Service meteorologist in Sterling, attributed the storms to an intense low-pressure system and the unpredictability of spring weather. The storm system dumped up to four inches of rain in parts of Prince George's County and 3 1/2 inches in Stafford near the tornado site, he said.

In Southern Maryland, front yards and sections of roads in western Charles County looked like shallow ponds.

In Fort Washington, a tornado with estimated 90-mph gusts ripped a 15-foot-long aluminum shed from the ground, crinkling it like tin foil and shooting it more than 50 yards away into Rhoda Carter's back yard. Pieces of it landed even farther away, along with one of Carter's trees, in Kathy Jones's garage.

Orlando and Toni Lewis heard the wind, felt a vibration and ran downstairs with their 6-year-old daughter, Tauryn, and 3-year-old son, Orlando.

"I said, 'Oh my God. I know that sound,' " Toni Lewis, 29, said. She and her husband used to live in Oklahoma, where, they said, they had survived a deadly series of tornadoes in 1999. "It wasn't as bad as those, but it was the same sound," she said.

Carl Erickson, a meteorologist with AccuWeather, said the storm was so violent because it drew a lot of moisture in from the Atlantic Ocean and wind directions varied at different altitudes, causing the system to begin twisting. He also said it didn't appear to be any worse than violent spring storms in years past.

"We're transitioning. Summer is trying to move up, and winter is trying to hang on. This can happen," he said.

However, it's markedly different than last May, when the Washington area received barely any rain, Rosa said. With this week's storm, many parts of the region have recorded more than the average rainfall for the entire month, Rosa said.

The torrent gave some residents the opportunity to flout repeated admonitions from authorities about driving through standing water.

Yesterday, Prince George's firefighters found two cars submerged on the Berry Road ramp leading to northbound Indian Head Highway, near the Prince George's and Charles line. The motorists apparently tried to drive through a large pool of water, said Mark Brady, a spokesman for the Prince George's fire department, and got stuck when the water reached window-level. The cars had been abandoned with their doors open, he said.

The heavy rains caused a sanitary sewer overflow at the Washington Suburban Sanitation Commission's Western Branch Waste Water Treatment Plant in Upper Marlboro. The overflow, which began after 11:15 a.m. and continued last night, was expected to send more than 1 million gallons of untreated, diluted wastewater flowing into Western Branch.

At the WSSC's Broad Creek Pumping Station in Fort Washington, about 968,000 gallons of untreated diluted wastewater overflowed into Broad Creek.

Thousands of residents lost power, including about 12,900 Dominion Virginia customers. About 3,900 remained affected last night, a spokesman said. By 10 a.m. yesterday, 11,800 Pepco customers reported they had lost power, spokesman Robert Dobkin said. Most were in Prince George's. By 5 p.m., power had yet to be restored to 1,500 customers.

Along Foggy Field Lane in Stafford, insulation that had been piped into homes built there in the past few years had been blown across the landscape, looking like a soggy dusting from a snow blower.

After the tornado, Larry and Debbie Olson emerged from the basement of the house they rent on the road and did not initially see anything wrong in their bedroom.

"It was dark, and we were rattled. It took a while to realize the wall was totally gone," said Larry Olson, who works for a defense contractor. Walls on the left and right sides of the house had blown out.

"You can look in like a dollhouse."

The sofa Debbie had been sitting on moments before while folding the laundry was upside down.

Yesterday, they returned to the house to assess the damage. Five books were still on the nightstand, and the treadmill was standing. They grabbed computers, a red-and-white quilt sewn by Debbie's great-grandmother, and a blanket and caps from their son's shrine to the Washington Redskins.

"There's my daughter's shoe from prom," said Debbie, picking up the silver dress shoe from grass dotted with window shards and chunks of house frame with protruding nails. "There's a mate around here somewhere."

Staff writers Bill Brubaker, Dan Morse, Sandhya Somashekhar, Eric Weiss and Matt Zapotosky and photographer Mark Gail contributed to this report.

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