Revisiting the La Plata Tornado, April 28, 2002 - WBOC-TV 16, Delmarvas News Leader, FOX 21 -

Revisiting the La Plata Tornado, April 28, 2002

While crossing through West Virginia, the storm yielded a solid dosage of CD-size hail, like the examples shown above. (Photo: NWS) While crossing through West Virginia, the storm yielded a solid dosage of CD-size hail, like the examples shown above. (Photo: NWS)
Another example of the large chunks of hail from the storm (Photo: NWS) Another example of the large chunks of hail from the storm (Photo: NWS)
A spotter image of funnel as it slid across the open waters and into the western bank of Dorchester County, roughly 10 miles south of Church Creek. (Photo: NWS) A spotter image of funnel as it slid across the open waters and into the western bank of Dorchester County, roughly 10 miles south of Church Creek. (Photo: NWS)
Another spotter image of the funnel. (Photo: NWS) Another spotter image of the funnel. (Photo: NWS)

Three years ago on April 28, one of the strongest tornadoes ever to develop on the Eastern seaboard touched down in southern Maryland. Its ensuing trek toward the chilly Chesapeake Bay one Sunday evening in late April spawned an incredible second tornado that would eventually rip through Dorchester County. 

Although it is unusual to see tornadic development in Maryland, it is extraordinary to reach the lower end of the state-wide average for tornadoes in a mere few hours! Even more impressive is the consideration of this actually happening in the midst of coolish April water temperatures.

The tornado-bearing thunderstorm began as a supercell (a very well developed thunderstorm cloud) near Charleston, W. Va., and marched across the rugged terrain of the Appalachian Mountains.  The time it spent in the Mountaineer State yielded a solid dosage of CD-size hail, but that would soon take a back seat meteorologically to what was brewing in Rockingham and Shenandoah counties in north-central Virginia.  (see adjacent NWS hail images).

The National Weather Service in Sterling, Va., soon dished out storm spotters’ reports of rotation within the cloud wall and a funnel shape around 7 p.m. Sunday.  Shortly thereafter, in the town of La Plata in Charles County, the tornado officially touched down near Mattawoman Creek.  It instantly tore apart buildings, injuring 122 people, and killing three.  The storm dug out a 64-mile path throughout southeast Maryland revealing more than $100 million in damage assessment. 

Fortunately Mother Nature relented, at least for a moment, as the deadly La Plata tornado died out in Calvert County.  Then amazingly at 7:45 p.m., the dying circulation of the initial funnel directly led to the creation of a second tornado immediately west of the Chesapeake Bay. 

The new funnel slid across the open waters and into the western bank of Dorchester County, roughly 10 miles south of Church Creek. (See adjacent NWS Spotter images and home video) Church Creek is just southwest of Cambridge. Dorchester’s emergency management noted that only one house and a barn were destroyed in the aftermath, likely suggesting the tornado weakened significantly after reemerging from the relatively cooler waters of the bay. 

Ultimately important was that none of the four family members were in the house at the time of the tornado’s passage.  It is notable though, that the National Weather Service in Wakefield, Va. reported destruction of several outbuildings near and along Hip Roof Road, as well. The chief deputy of the Dorchester County Sheriff's Office described the uprooting of numerous trees and telephone wires as being similar to that of a vacuum sucking up dirt.

Despite the second tornado’s weaker character, President George W. Bush declared Dorchester County a federal disaster area.  This meant that federal aid could be applied for damage repair.  The National Weather Service determined in post-storm analysis that the storm’s 90 minute life cycle on the Western Shore allowed the winds to reach F-4 status of 207 to 260 mph. 

If it were not for the muting effects of the Chesapeake Bay, the damage in Dorchester County would have been much more severe with the follow-up funnel. South Dorchester School closed the following Monday due to leftover debris on area roadways. (see adjacent file footage of debris) School bus service was halted as well in southern portions of the county. It is estimated the tornado’s path was 16 to 18 miles on an easterly course, covering nearly the entire length of Dorchester County. 

Tornado season begins every March in the United States. Tornadoes kill roughly 60 people each year, mostly from scattered debris. 

Because the state of Maryland sees on average two to five tornadoes per year, the devastating La Plata twister and the secondary Dorchester County spinster are all the more climatologically rare.   

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