La Plata twister Md.'s worst

261-mph winds leveled buildings, claimed 3 lives

State of emergency declared

Charles Co. seat begins cleanup, rebuilding tasks

April 30, 2002|By Scott Calvert, Laura Barnhardt and Jeff Barker | Scott Calvert, Laura Barnhardt and Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

LA PLATA - The tornado that roared across Southern Maryland on Sunday night, killing three people, was the worst twister in state history, the National Weather Service reported yesterday.

And it showed. Stunned residents and elected officials who surveyed the damage in Charles and Calvert counties yesterday saw a church with its white steeple snapped off, a bank with the letters of its corporate name ripped from the wall, and pile after pile of rubble that had been someone's home or business.

A Calvert County couple who took shelter in their bathtub spoke in amazement about how the front of their brick house was shorn off.

The owner of a Charles County home improvement center, where residents might have gone for rebuilding supplies, looked dejectedly at the ruins of his business.

But by midday, buzzing chain saws and rumbling bulldozers signaled the start of what officials predicted would be a slow but determined effort to rebuild in La Plata, a growing town of 6,500 that is the Charles County seat. Electricity and phone service were restored to all but about 2,000 customers by late yesterday.

"We will overcome this. We will recover," vowed Murray D. Levy, president of the Charles County Commission. "We will make La Plata the charming town it was a day ago."

Packing winds of more than 261 mph, the category F5 tornado - at the top of the scale that meteorologists use to measure intensity - leveled 80 buildings in and around La Plata and damaged 420 others, said Charles County spokeswoman Nina Voehl.

Officials said they did not want to guess at the financial toll.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening declared a state of emergency in Charles, Calvert and Dorchester counties, and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend toured the damage yesterday. Later, U.S. Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski arrived, pledging to help secure federal disaster aid. County schools are closed again today; county offices might be as well.

Officials said Sunday's storm was the worst natural disaster here since a tornado in 1926 - one of only three in Maryland history to rate at least an F4, the second-highest category - took a similar path and killed 14 schoolchildren.

Two of the fatalities Sunday occurred in the La Plata area when the tornado touched down along U.S. 301 after 7 p.m.

William G. Erickson Jr., 51, died when his house collapsed. A second man, Donald Hammonds, 54, died of a stroke he suffered in a car on U.S. 301.

In Calvert County, Margaret Alvey, 78, of Prince Frederick was killed when high winds picked up and flattened her small wood farmhouse off Route 231. Her husband, George Alvey, was flown to Washington Hospital Center, where he was listed in critical condition yesterday, county officials said.

On the Eastern Shore, where officials throughout Delmarva were warned of possible tornadoes Sunday evening, no injuries were reported and damage was light.

The National Weather Service said the tornado - or series of tornadoes - appears to have started west of La Plata and carved a path 24 miles long. Officials said it cut a narrow swath just 400 yards wide, leveling some buildings but leaving others nearby unscathed.

"It moved across Charles County basically east and pretty much on the ground the whole time," said meteorologist James P. Travers of the Baltimore-Washington forecast office. The intensity, he said, apparently fluctuated as it moved across Charles and into Calvert County.

The National Weather Service posted its warning of severe weather - including a tornado watch - at 3:05 p.m. Sunday, then issued a severe thunderstorm warning at 6:45. A tornado warning went out at 7:02, minutes before the twister hit.

Still, many residents said they were caught off guard.

Yesterday, the storm's power was evident.

At Charles Street and U.S. 301, gawkers caused a 3-mile traffic backup. Many carried cameras. They saw metal panels from an Exxon station roof hanging like limp spaghetti, a KFC restaurant all but obliterated, a Catholic school in ruins.

Given the devastation, officials said it was remarkable that more people did not die.

"We're thankful the loss of life was as limited as it was," Sarbanes said outside the Charles County government building. "If it had come through at a different time or on a busy day, we'd have really paid a heavy price."

Then Sarbanes and Mikulski took a guided walking tour through downtown to see for themselves what price was paid. "That was Posey's Market," Levy told them, gesturing to the cluster of debris where the Posey family has sold groceries for generations.

Turning down St. Mary's Avenue, he pointed out the gracious Victorian building that was home to the law firm Mudd, Mudd & Fitzgerald. It used to have a peaked roof; now it has none.

Pointing at a heap of crumpled metal, Levy said, "That's the water tower that came down."

The steel legs supporting the 75,000-gallon tank had crumpled, bent like a grasshopper's.

"Oh, my," said Mikulski. "Wow," said Sarbanes.

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