Editor’s note: The following is a summary from the National Weather Service regarding the tragic, historic tornado that tore through La Plata and other Southern Maryland counties April 28, 2002.
Washington, DC – April 28, 2017 marks the 15-year anniversary of one of the strongest tornadoes to hit the greater Baltimore-Washington D.C. area. During the evening of April 28, 2002, a long track, devastating tornado with a peak rating of F4 on the Fujita (F) scale in La Plata tracked across Southern Maryland. Though F4 tornadoes are uncommon, even rarer with this event was its location well outside of the climatologically favored area of the country for violent tornadoes.
The tornado originated from a supercell thunderstorm that developed in central West Virginia and moved east across the Appalachian Mountains. In eastern West Virginia, the storm produced hail; it first became tornadic near Quicksburg, VA. Tornado warnings were issued for Rockingham and Shenandoah Counties, where a F2 tornado occurred. The storm moved across Page, Culpeper, Fauquier and Prince William counties, but produced little damage. Spotters tracking the storm reported rotation and funnel clouds, but no tornado occurred during this phase. In Prince William County, hail was reported.
The storm rapidly changed its character as it crossed the Potomac River. A distinctive reflectivity hook echo appeared and rotation became much stronger. The tornado developed about a mile east of Mattawoman Creek and two miles east of the Potomac River. The Potomac River is tidal and rather wide along the Charles County shore.
A couple of houses, one on Quail Court and another on Quailwood showed F3 damage, while most were rated F1 to F2 intensity. East of Quailwood, the tornado destroyed part of the Archbishop Neale School. Considering the amount of damage to the classrooms of this school, it is very fortunate that the tornado struck on a Sunday night when school was not in session. The heavy cement slabs that formed the roof lifted and fell into the classrooms, windows broke in, and walls were torn away in some places.
The tornado strengthened and widened further as it moved through downtown La Plata. Swaths of F3 and F4 damage were observed through town. These swaths and eyewitness accounts suggested that the tornado was multi-vortex (multiple, compact vortices circulating around the parent tornado circulation). Through downtown La Plata, the damage swath was almost one-half mile wide (approximately 650 yards).
The tornado likely was moving at an unusually fast speed of 58 mph as it moved through La Plata (nearly a mile a minute!). Therefore, the damage occurred in just a few seconds.
Just west of the railroad tracks is Maple Avenue. Two houses and two separate garages once stood between Maple and Lagrange Avenues (just south of Port Tobacco Road). There was little to nothing left of the two two-story houses or the garages.
After crossing La Plata, the tornado moved east-southeast, damaging extensively a heavily wooded area and clipping the Clark Run subdivision. The tornado crossed Route 6 again. Three additional homes were leveled along this segment of the tornado path.
The tornado entered Calvert County south of the Patuxent River Bridge (Route 231) at approximately 7:28 pm EDT after traversing 30 miles. Although it was weakening, it still was strong enough to destroy several homes and kill two people in Calvert County. The tornado damage in Calvert County was rated F1 to F2 intensity. The tornado moved offshore at approximately 7:45 pm. Additional tornado damage continued in Dorchester County across the Chesapeake Bay.
Homes in Calvert County suffered predominantly roof and siding damage. The occupants of one home had safely taken cover in an interior bathroom. The tornado was seen moving east across the Chesapeake Bay from Calvert County’s eastern shore. Tornado damage was rated F1/F2 at this point and had already traveled 38 miles.