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A damaging tornadic waterspout barreled through parts of Smith Island

Officials said 17 houses were damaged, three or four extensively, on the Maryland island that’s home to just over 200 people

Tornado damage on Smith Island, Md. (Tiffanie Woutila)
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A powerful tornadic waterspout tore through parts of Smith Island, Md., in the Chesapeake Bay, on Thursday evening, smashing homes, tearing down power lines and scattering airborne debris across parts of the community.

Cellphone video captured the funnel cloud as it snaked across the water and veered inland toward the Rhodes Point neighborhood. “Oh, no! Oh, no!” a woman can be heard yelling on one video as the twister raced toward land, tossing objects in its path.

“Oh, Lord,” a woman says on another video, as it seems to be racing right for her home. There are shouts, as the upper floor of a house next door is blown off, and a large chunk tumbles across the yard.

“Get down, get down, get down,” someone yells, and then, “Oh my God!”

The person with the phone then runs out a door to help as people shout, and the twister can be seen receding in the distance.

There appeared to be no serious injuries, officials said. But 17 houses were damaged, three or four extensively, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s office said on Friday.

The tornado developed from a strong, rotating thunderstorm over the Chesapeake Bay, according to the Capital Weather Gang.

It also was an evening of violent weather in parts of the Washington region. Three people were killed and another was badly injured when lightning struck Lafayette Square, just across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House about the same time the twister hit Smith Island.

The funnel cloud “just looked like a normal water spout, but it kept on coming,” said Betty Tyler, whose bed-and-breakfast was damaged in the storm. “It didn’t stop when it got to land ... tore the third floor off my building. Completely gone. Destroyed my neighbor’s house. She was in the bed and that’s the only room that didn’t get crushed.”

As she described the damage in a telephone interview Friday, Tyler said her 88-year-old neighbor was helped by rescuers. “They got her out,” Tyler said. “Her whole house crumbled around her. It’s just a pile of rubble.”

Tyler said neither she nor any guests were in the bed-and-breakfast when the waterspout struck. She said there was damage in other areas of her community.

“Boats flipped over,” she said. “The gas station here, all the gas pumps are laying down on the ground.”

Donnie Marsh, a firefighter with the local Ewell Volunteer Fire Department, said: “One house just is completely tore up, and another, three-story house, lost the third story ... A couple boats got sunk and two or three sheds got destroyed.”

He said the only injury he knew of was to the 88-year-old woman. “By the grace of God, she just got minor injuries,” he said. “Everything collapsed around her, but she was all right.”

“I was there when they took her out and put her on the ambulance,” he said. “They took her to Crisfield by boat and then they took her to the hospital. She’s the toughest person I know. She looked ... a little devastated.”

He said he was some distance away and did not see the tornado. “We had some storm and some thunder but I had no idea that all this had happened,” he said. Then his pager went off, and “a collapsed building” was reported.

“I went up the road and it was unbelievable what I saw,” he said. “It looked like something you’d see in a movie. All this mess and stuff scattered everywhere.” He said he had to park a distance away because of downed wires and walk to the site.

Smith Island, home to about 200 people, is made up of three island communities and lies on the border of Maryland and Virginia’s territorial waters about a dozen miles from the mainland.

“We stand ready to assist the local response,” Hogan tweeted Thursday evening. On Friday, he said on Twitter that damage assessment teams were on the ground.

The tornado struck about 7:30 p.m. It has yet to be officially rated by the National Weather Service. Such a rating requires an in-person survey by forecasters, which is typically conducted within a couple of days of a twister.

It hit with little warning, preceded only by a Special Weather Statement that warned of 45 mph wind gusts. As Smith Island lies near the midpoint of three National Weather Service radar detectors, radar beams intersected the storm at about 8,000 feet above the ground; this was probably too high up to properly detect the type of atmospheric spin that could have warranted a tornado warning.

Waterspouts are often falsely believed to be harmless seaborne spinups, akin to dust devils, that rapidly decompose as they encounter land. Some fair-weather waterspouts, not associated with thunderstorms, do fit this description.

But tornado waterspouts, according to NOAA, “have the same characteristics as a land tornado” despite developing over open water — and can cause substantial damage upon landfall.

Such tornadic waterspouts sometimes accompany hurricanes and are occasionally experienced along the Gulf Coast, particularly western Florida. Noteworthy twister outbreaks in 1999, 2016 and 2020 all involved extensive damage caused by tornadic waterspouts.

The environment over Maryland on Thursday had ingredients seemingly unfavorable for twister development, with strong instability — atmospheric energy akin to fuel for storms — but very weak wind shear, which helps thunderstorms organize and spin. As a result, forecasters at the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center did not designate a risk area for tornadoes.

Thunderstorms sometimes rotate, and produce twisters, in environments that appear inhospitable to tornado development.

Terrain features such as rivers and hills have been known to increase the amount of atmospheric spin available to storms in hard-to-predict ways, though it is unclear whether that is what allowed Thursday’s tornado to develop despite an unfavorable atmosphere.

A GoFundMe effort has been set up to assist in the recovery and cleanup.

This is a developing story and has been updated.

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