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Remembering the La Plata tornado, 15 years later

The tornado that devastated La Plata, Md., tracks over the Chesapeake Bay, April 28, 2002. The tornado damaged or destroyed 860 homes and 194 businesses in southern Maryland. (Washington Weather)

It’s been 15 years since the strongest tornado to ever to hit the Washington, D.C., area tracked across La Plata, Md.  It was the type of tornado that you would expect to see in Kansas, but not in Washington’s southern suburbs.

The tornado hit La Plata at 7:02 p.m. April 28, 2002, and damaged or destroyed 860 homes and 194 businesses. Five lives were lost and at least 120 people were injured. Property damage was estimated in excess of $100 million. The tornado was on the ground for nearly 70 miles as it raced through Charles and Calvert counties at 45 to 55 mph.

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, Del.

The tornado’s winds fluctuated from 100 mph (F1) to nearly 260 mph (F4) during its 90-minute life cycle. Tragically, the tornado peaked to F4 intensity as it moved through the town of La Plata, the second highest level on the 0-5 Fujita (F) scale.

It ranks as the second-strongest tornado to strike a state along the East Coast, behind a 1953 Worcester, Mass., tornado, which was rated F5.

The National Weather Service in Sterling, Va., provided this account of the storm as it tore through La Plata:

The tornado strengthened and widened further as it moved into and through downtown La Plata. This intensification may have been aided by the rear-flank downburst. Streaks of damage observed through town was indicative of F3 and F4 damage on the Fujita Damage Scale. These streaks and eyewitness accounts lead us to believe that this was a multi-vortex tornado (more than one funnel circulating around the parent tornado circulation). Through downtown La Plata, the width of the damage (F1) extends out almost a half-mile (approximately 650 yards across). … It must also be stated that the tornado was moving at an unusually fast speed of 50 knots (according to radar estimates) which is equal to 58 mph. That is nearly a mile a minute. Therefore, the damage … happened in just a few seconds.

The hail that fell with the storm was particularly large for our region. One eyewitness told me a large hailstone shaped like a zucchini crashed through his windshield while he was driving through southern Maryland. Photographs taken after the storm showed hail the size of baseballs and softballs that fell from the sky.

Link: Eyewitness video (strong language)

Many acres of forest were also leveled by the tornado. Satellite imagery showed a long swath of trees, vegetation and buildings destroyed or disturbed along the immediate path of the tornado.

The storm was born from a supercell thunderstorm that developed in central West Virginia. It first produced a tornado near Quicksburg, Va., and grew into a F2 twister in Rockingham and Shenandoah counties in western Virginia before weakening. Then, after it crossed the Potomac River into Charles County, Md., it rapidly intensified.

Fifteen years after the devastating storm, La Plata is thriving.

“It changed La Plata, it really did,” said WUSA9 chief meteorologist Topper Shutt, in a Facebook live broadcast on the storm. “They now have a great business district, it’s more vibrant, people are actually moving out there, they’re raising families. So as horrible as it was, they’ve turned it around into a positive.”

Sadly, this was not the deadliest tornado to hit La Plata. A tornado in 1926 lifted an entire schoolhouse off its foundation. The school, which at the time contained 60 students and two teachers, was carried 50 feet away and blown into a grove of trees. When the schoolhouse struck the trees, it splintered to bits, killing 14 children. Some of the children were carried 500 feet, and one was found in the top of a tree more than 300 feet away. A desk from the school was found five miles away, 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 1926 tornado killed a total of 16 people and injured about 40 others.

Do you have any memories of the 2002 La Plata tornado?


From CWG and the Washington Post

Washington D.C.’s worst 5 tornado events

Tornado devastates La Plata, Maryland

Archival coverage from the Washington Post after the storm hit in 2002 | Photo gallery (some links no longer work)

Other resources

National Weather Service overview of La Plata tornado

National Weather Service post storm assessment of La Plata tornado forecast and warnings

Technical scientific paper on the La Plata tornado

Town of La Plata tornado damage images

(Jason Samenow contributed to this post.)