Something stormy this way came

List: The Regional Forecast Office has issued its picks for the worst weather disasters of the past century.

January 30, 2000|By Frank D. Roylance

WITH THE 21st century just weeks old, every storm might fairly be ranked as the "Storm of the Century." And every tempest, or flood, or drought awarded the "century's worst" title in the coming decades will hold the distinction tentatively, until something more deadly or destructive comes along.

But one of the perks of working for the National Weather Service at the close of the 20th century is that you can rifle back through the record books and pick out weather events that will stand as historic.

The people at the National Weather Service's Regional Forecast Office in Sterling, Va. (ignoring purists who say the century doesn't end until Jan. 1, 2001), have issued their picks for the 12 greatest weather events of the 20th century in the Baltimore-Washington region. Here they are, in chronological order:

COLD, 1912: Bitter cold set in on Jan. 5 and held on until Feb. 16, one of the longest, most severe arctic outbreaks on record. Ice formed in the rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. A low of minus 40 degrees on Jan. 13 in Oakland still stands as the state's historic low. Washington reached 8 below zero, and Baltimore reported 2 below.

SNOW, 1922: After four days of bitter cold, snow began falling on the afternoon of Jan. 27 and continued past mid-morning Jan. 29. Washington and Baltimore were paralyzed by 28 inches, and 25 inches, respectively. Fierce winds piled up deep drifts.

Snow on the roof of the Knickerbocker Theater in Washington proved too much for its supports. It collapsed on 900 patrons. Ninety-eight were crushed to death, and 158 were injured. A small boy was sent through the rubble to give pain pills to the suffering. It became the "Knickerbocker Storm."

TORNADO, 1926: At 2: 30 p.m. Nov. 9, a howling tornado with winds up to 250 mph touched down near La Plata in Charles County. It ripped up homes and barns before crashing down on a schoolhouse filled with children.

Some of the children were carried 500 feet from their demolished classrooms. One was found dead, high in a tree. School wreckage was found 25 miles away near Upper Marlboro, and a page from a school ledger flew 36 miles to Bowie. Fourteen children were killed. All the rest were injured.

Elsewhere, homes, barns, fences and utility poles were flattened. Seventeen people were killed and 60 injured.

HEAT WAVE, 1930: The longest and most intense heat wave of the century began July 16 and lasted until Aug. 11. Temperatures averaged 8 to 10 degrees above normal. Frederick residents suffered through 26 days with highs above 90, and 20 days with highs above 100 degrees. Three days topped out at 108.

Without air conditioning, Baltimoreans endured seven days that exceeded 100 degrees. Highs reached 104 degrees on July 21 and Aug. 4. Many deaths were reported.

DROUGHT, 1930-1931: Rainfall grew scarce in December 1929, and a drought was declared in May 1930. For 15 months, rains diminished to 60 percent of normal. Baltimore recorded 27.31 inches, 23 inches below normal.

Crop losses totaled $40 million. The drought eased some in 1931, but streams and water tables remained low. It was May 1932 before the drought officially ended.

RIVER FLOOD, 1942: A tropical storm moving in from North Carolina on Oct. 12 began five days of torrential rains in Northern Virginia and Maryland. Totals reached 12 to 19 inches, causing severe crop damage.

Hardest hit were towns along the Shenandoah and Rappahannock rivers. Water rose 27 feet above flood stage at Fredericksburg, Va. On the Potomac, cities from Cumberland to Alexandria, Va., were under 3 to 8 feet of water. About 750 Marylanders and 1,300 Virginians had to evacuate.

HURRICANE, 1954: Two weeks of 90-degree heat were finally broken Oct. 15 by Hurricane Hazel. A Category 4 storm when it crossed the coast near Wilmington, N.C., Hazel was still a hurricane as it cruised north near Hagerstown in the early evening.

Hampton, Va., clocked gusts to 130 mph. Washington also sustained hurricane-force winds. Baltimore just missed, with sustained winds of 73 mph. Western Maryland received 5 to 6 inches of rain in 12 hours. Trees toppled, basements flooded, roofs blew away and a few homes floated off their foundations in Maryland. Six people died, and damages came to more than $28 million.

COASTAL STORM, 1962: The "Ash Wednesday Storm," March 5 to 9, was a ferocious "nor'easter" that roared up the East Coast, killing 40 people, damaging thousands of homes and causing $200 million in damage.

Chincoteague and Assateague islands were submerged. Ocean City sustained 70 mph winds and major damage. Big Meadows, near Luray, Va., recorded the state's heaviest-ever 24-hour snowfall -- 33 inches -- and deepest snowstorm -- 42 inches.

TROPICAL STORM, 1972: Hurricane Agnes sloshed ashore on the Florida panhandle and was quickly downgraded to a tropical depression. It regained tropical storm strength only briefly off the Virginia Capes. Before they were spent, however, Agnes' winds, floods and rain killed 122 people and caused $3.5 billion in damage.

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