Powerful storms surged through the Washington area yesterday afternoon, spawning tornadoes in Fauquier County and suburban Baltimore and 60-mile-an-hour winds in the District and Maryland, felling trees and dumping two inches of rain over the area. Almost 100,000 homes were without power from Fredericksburg to Baltimore.
The storms hit in late afternoon, snarling rush hour for tens of thousands of commuters. The cold front that brought the storms is expected to drop temperatures by 15 degrees, bringing more seasonable temperatures to what has been an unseasonably warm October.
At the Capitol, heavy rains poured through the west side of the dome and into the Rotunda, forcing workers to cover a half-dozen statues with plastic sheeting.
Sweeping through the tiny town of Remington, in Fauquier County, 45 miles west of Washington, a tornado took the roofs off half a dozen buildings and filled Main Street with glass, bricks and roofing tin. No injuries were reported from the twister, which hit at 1:40 p.m. Officials estimated damage in the two-square-mile town at more than $500,000.
In Reisterstown, northeast of Baltimore, 50 to 70 people suffered mostly minor injuries when what was described as a small tornado touched down.
Winds ripped the roofs off four apartment buildings and more than a dozen houses, said Ed Rather, operations officer for Baltimore County's 911 Center. Gov. William Donald Schaefer and County Executive Dennis Rasmussen visited the area to survey damage.
Houses in Reston and the District were damaged by high winds or fallen tree limbs, but no injuries were reported. At the Southgate condominium complex in Reston, residents said trees were down and winds had ripped holes in the roofs of several buildings. Tish Hidebrand, an employee of the condominium complex on Colts Neck Road, said the storms blasted for about five minutes.
"We've got trees uprooted, trees down, limbs all over the place. Parts of roofs are missing," she said. "It came up really fast. It's awful."
District police and firefighters responded to reports of trees and electrical wires down in Northwest and Northeast. One tree crashed onto a car on Fort Totten Drive NE. Another slammed into a house in the 3800 block of Yuma Street NW in the District. It brought down power lines, which sparked a brief fire. There were several overturned and loose boats along the Washington Channel, according to D.C. harbor police.
There were power outages throughout the area. A Potomac Electric Power Co. spokeswoman said that of the 50,000 that lost power about 40,000 homes remained without electricity early today. Of these, about 30,000 were in Montgomery County, and 5,000 each in Prince George's and the District.
Virginia Power reported that about 20,000 customers lost power, and that it had been restored to all but about 6,000 early today, including about 4,500 in Herndon, Reston and McLean.
There were reports of a tornado in Kensington, but Ken Reeves, a meteorologist from Accu-Weather in Pennsylvania, says officials have not confirmed the reports and will not know whether a tornado hit that area until they are able to assess the damage.
"The problem is with everything blowing around, it's hard to tell until everything dies down and an expert can go out and look at the damage pattern," Reeves said.
At the height of the storms, wind gusts of 60 mph were recorded in Silver Spring.
The storms occurred when the cold front hit warm air, said Barbara McNaught of the National Weather Service. It was similar to one last November that blasted up the Eastern Seaboard and left at least 29 people dead, including seven children at a New York State elementary school, she said.
A tornado watch was in effect for the entire area until 9 p.m. yesterday, she said. A severe thunderstorm warning was in effect during the late afternoon and evening.
Temperatures no higher than 63 degrees are expected today, and frost is likely for some low-lying areas tonight, as temperatures dip into the mid-thirties. Tonight is expected to be the coldest night of the fall.
At the U.S. Capitol, where Congress is already feeling besieged by a seemingly endless budget crisis, Rep. Thomas J. Downey (D-N.Y.) watched puddles build on the Rotunda floor. "When it goes bad, it really goes bad," he said.
George M. White, architect of the Capitol, said it is not unusual for the dome to leak during heavy, wind-driven rainfalls. The Capitol, White explained, "has leaked from the beginning . . . . This is obviously being driven through hairline cracks."
Storm winds and heavy rains caused extensive power outages in the Kensington area between Wheaton Plaza and Plyers Mill Road, Montgomery County fire Capt. Ray Mulhall said.
The brunt of the storms hit about 3:45 p.m., Mulhall said. Downed power lines and uprooted trees caused major traffic back-ups, forcing authorities to close some major streets, he said.
On Plyers Mill Court, three houses were damaged. At one, a tree had crashed through the roof.
Christina Walsh, 22, a medical student who lives in the house damaged by the tree, said she had just finished studying. "I heard the wind. I looked out a big plate-glass window at the storm . . . . Just as I turned away I saw a big bolt of lightning strike the tree."
She dove behind a kitchen counter just as the tree fell, crashing through the roof above and shattering the nearby window.
Rush hour was slowed by minor accidents, malfunctioning traffic signals and fallen debris. Although Metro trains were running during the storm, a spokeswoman said, power outages were reported at seven stations.
The outages shut down some escalators, elevators, Farecard machines, gates and lights. Delays were reported on some bus routes.
Staff writers Gabriel Escobar, DeNeen L. Brown, D'Vera Cohn, Stephen C. Fehr, Retha Hill, Veronica Jennings, Lynne Varner, John Ward Anderson, Michael Ybarra, Molly Sinclair, Tom Kenworthy and Stephen Buckley contributed to this report.