The tornado season in 2011, off to a fast and furious start, is likely to become one for the record books. Thus far, the Washington, D.C. metro region has largely been spared, with only very weak tornadoes in the region. While the Washington area does not get the quantity or usually the severity of tornadoes that impact the states to our west, we have experienced a number of dangerous twisters over the past century. Below is a list of what I consider to be the Washington, D.C. area’s top five most damaging and deadly tornadoes...
#1. The La Plata School House Tornado of November 9, 1926. The disastrous tornado first touched down in Charles County, about 5 miles southwest of La Plata, Maryland. The tornado moved northeast into La Plata and headed directly towards the local public grade school. The F4 tornado lifted the entire schoolhouse off its foundation, which at the time contained 60 students and two teachers. The school was carried about fifty feet away and blown into a grove of trees. When the schoolhouse struck the trees it instantly splintered to bits, killing 13 children. Some of the children were carried 500 feet, and one was found in the top of a tree over 300 feet away. A desk from the school was found five miles away from the scene, and some of the wreckage was found in Upper Marlboro, 25 miles away. A page from the school register was found in Bowie, 36 miles away. The tornado claimed a total of 16 lives and injured about 40 others.
#2. The La Plata Tornado of April 28, 2002. A rotating supercell thunderstorm raced east through north central Virginia at 40-50 mph during the afternoon of April 28. When the thunderstorm crossed the Potomac River around 7 p.m., a strong 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.
One of the hardest hit areas was concentrated around the town of La Plata in Charles County. 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. 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.
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.
See also: Tornado devastates La Plata, Md.
#3. The College Park Tornado of September 24, 2001. On the afternoon of September 24, 2001, a severe thunderstorms developed west and south of Washington and quickly moved to the north-northeast through the D.C. A tornado touched down two miles southwest of College Park and rapidly intensified to F3 strength. When it moved through the University of Maryland in College Park, it tossed cars, knocked down trees, damaged buildings and destroyed ten trailers. The most tragic event of the storm took place when a car containing two women was lifted off the ground and hurled over an eight-story dorm building. The car fell into the woods across University Boulevard, killing both women. The women were sisters and students of the University of Maryland.
The storm struck particularly hard near the corner of University Boulevard and Metzerott Road, where a church lost its steeple and sustained substantial structural damage. An adjacent apartment complex had its roofs torn apart. Near the University of Maryland Golf Course, the indoor tennis facility was completely swept away.
The tornado moved through the north side of College Park and then through Beltsville, tracking between Interstate 95 and Route 1. It was sustained at F2 strength, with maximum winds up to 150 mph. It felled thousands of trees and numerous power lines. The College Park Marketplace shopping center took a direct hit. Home Depot lost its roof and two other stores were rendered unusable. In addition, the roof of the St. Joseph’s School in Beltsville was blown off into an adjacent building.
As the funnel churned into Laurel, it maintained its strength. It even briefly intensified to F3 strength. Approximately 150-175 homes and businesses were damaged, including Laurel High School. There was also serious damage in the town’s historic district. Property damages exceeded $50 million.
#4. The April Fools’ Day Tornado of April 1, 1973. A thunderstorm moving northeast near Manassas, Virginia spawned a tornado in Prince William County during the mid-afternoon of April 1. The twister skipped over a twenty-mile path to just north of Falls Church, Virginia. The first serious damage was noted south of Braddock Road at the Middle Ridge development, where a dozen homes were seriously damaged. The tornado then bounced back aloft before slamming into homes about a mile to the north, near the intersection of Braddock and Ox Roads. At least one house was lifted off its foundation and blown across Braddock Road.
The twister then hopped aloft again, next coming down about two miles to the northeast, near Little River Turnpike, where it did serious damage to the Pickett Shopping Center and Woodson High School. The tornado then made a final hop of three miles to the northeast before coming down in the Merrifield section at Lee Highway, near the Beltway. At that time, it sliced through the Pine Springs garden apartment complex and several other residences and businesses.
In all, 226 homes were damaged, 53 homes were declared uninhabitable, and 13 homes were totally destroyed. Also, 94 garden apartment units were damaged and 50 businesses sustained losses. Two elementary schools, Mantua and Oakview, were damaged. Woodson High School had its roof ripped off and several walls blown down. It was closed for the rest of the school year. Dozens of kids were in the Woodson gym playing basketball when the roof blew off. Luckily, there were no serious injuries.
In all, 37 injuries were reported as a result of the tornado. Fortunately, there were no fatalities. The total damage was estimated at $13.5 million.
#5. The Alexandria and Washington Tornado of November 17, 1927. On November 17, 1927, a severe thunderstorm in Fairfax County spawned a tornado southwest of Alexandria, Virginia. The tornado passed through western Alexandria and southeast Arlington, crossed the Potomac River at the Naval Air Station, and then passed through a densely-populated area of Washington near 19th Street and Bladensburg Road, NE. The tornado continued through Northeast Washington and crossed into Prince George’s County.
The tornado passed directly through the Naval Air Station in Washington. The Naval Air Station recorded a peak wind of 93 mph. The tornado caused damage to hundreds of buildings in Alexandria and Washington. At the Naval Air Station, damage occurred to nine airplanes, fifteen automobiles and one destroyer. A huge smokestack was blown down at 12th and G Streets, SE, and a streetcar was blown off its tracks on Benning Road.
The path of the tornado was 17 miles long and ranged in width from 20 to 300 yards. The tornado appeared most intense as it passed through Alexandria and again in Washington. Witnesses to the tornado reported that they saw a distinct funnel-shaped cloud and heard a roar, like a “huge waterfall.” Debris was also seen flying through the air around the tornado. Luckily, there were no fatalities, but 32 injuries were noted.
Worth a Mention: The Tornado of August 25, 1814. Since this tornado occurred before official weather records, it did not make the top five list. However, it is one of the top historic weather events to occur in Washington. On the morning of August 25, Washington was burning after British soldiers invaded the city. Throughout the morning, the British soldiers continued to set more fires in the city and destroy ammunition supplies. As the soldiers spread fire and destruction, the sky began to darken and lightning and thunder signaled the approach of a thunderstorm. As the storm neared the city, the winds began to increase dramatically and then built into a “frightening roar.”
The center of the storm with a small tornado tore through Washington and directly into the British occupation. Several buildings were lifted off of their foundations and destroyed. Other buildings were blown down or lost their roofs. Feather beds were blown out of homes and scattered about. Trees were uprooted, fences were knocked down, and the heavy chain bridge across the Potomac River was buckled and rendered useless. It was noted that cannons were tossed into the air. The flying debris killed several British soldiers. Many of the soldiers did not have time to take cover from the winds and they laid face down in the streets. One account describes how a British officer on horseback did not dismount and the winds slammed both horse and rider violently to the ground.
The winds subsided quickly, but the rain fell in torrents for two hours. Fortunately, the heavy rains quenched the flames and prevented Washington from continuing to burn.
Do you remember any other significant tornadoes in the region that should’ve made this list? Comment below....