Funnel cloud is sighted as storms buffet Md.

Damage is mostly light, but thousands lose power

May 14, 2002|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Maryland was in the cross hairs for another volley of violent weather yesterday as fast-moving thunderstorms swept the state with high winds, torrential rain, lightning, large hail and at least one tornado sighting.

Falling trees crushed parts of two homes in an Ellicott City neighborhood that saw the heaviest damage. Other downed trees damaged structures, blocked roads and snapped power lines, interrupting electric service to thousands.

No serious injuries were reported, and most property damage from the storms appeared to have been minor.

In the 3600 block of Valley Road in Ellicott City, a huge tree smashed through the rear of a one-story white rancher and into the dining room. About a third of the back wall and roof were crushed

Tom and Mary Sullins have lived there since 1965, and both were at home when the tree burst into the dining room.

"I told my husband, I married you for better or worse, but not for a hole in the roof," she said. "We're just happy to be safe and sound."

Yesterday's storms marked the fourth time in 16 days that National Weather Service forecasters have issued tornado warnings for Maryland, and the third time a funnel cloud has been spotted.

A funnel cloud was seen and photographed near Rockville yesterday, according to Dewey Walston, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service forecasting office in Sterling, Va.

Rotating tornadic winds were also detected on weather radar and tracked from Montgomery County across Howard, Baltimore, Harford and Cecil counties before the storm system left the state.

In Worcester County, strong winds downed trees and wires and blew over barns and chicken houses, said emergency services dispatch supervisor Julia White, adding that authorities had received three calls reporting sightings of a funnel cloud -- near Pocomoke City and West Ocean City.

A powerful storm blew across northern Ocean City shortly before 10 p.m. Police Chief David Massey, in an early assessment, said there were downed trees and damage to the roof of a condominium near 128th Street.

White said the county would have a full damage assessment today.

It was not certain whether a funnel cloud touched down anywhere in the state. Walston said no decision had been made about whether to send a team to Ellicott City to see whether the damage was caused by straight-line or by tornadic winds.

On April 28, a tornado later rated an F4 -- one of the most violent on record in Maryland -- ripped across Charles and Calvert counties, causing six deaths and damage estimated at more than $100 million.

On May 2, a smaller twister tracked across a portion of Cecil County, ripping the roof off a home and causing other property damage east of Rising Sun.

On Sunday afternoon, a severe thunderstorm crossed the Baltimore region, and a tornado warning was issued for parts of Carroll County. Residents took cover, but no funnel cloud was spotted.

Yesterday's storms cut power to about 18,000 customers of the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. Hardest hit were the city, where about 8,700 lost power, and Howard County, with 7,700 affected.

Jessica Brown, BGE spokeswoman, blamed the outages on high winds that sent trees and debris crashing into power lines. Repair crews were expected to be working through the night -- and could be faced with additional damage as strong winds trailing the storm's passage continued to buffet the metropolitan area.

The day's storms were triggered by conditions very similar to those that caused the April 28 tornado in La Plata, meteorologists said. Low-pressure cells, powered by a strong jet stream, moved along a frontal boundary between cold air to the north and warm, moist air to the south.

"This is the perfect setup for this sort of thing," said Heidi Sonen, a meteorologist with the Penn State Weather Communications Group in State College, Pa.

The first tornado watch in Maryland yesterday was issued about 2:50 p.m., for most of Central and Southern Maryland and parts of the Eastern Shore. A watch means conditions are ripe for a tornado to form.

Twenty minutes later, the first tornado warning was issued for Montgomery County. It came after a former weather service employee reported a funnel cloud a mile southwest of Rockville, moving northeast at 40 mph.

A few minutes later the warning was extended to Howard County when weather radar revealed tornadic winds nine miles west of Columbia, in a storm cell moving northeastward toward Ellicott City at 40 mph.

"It was really a very loud roaring sound, and it was raining vigorously," said Paula LaSalle of the 3600 block of Ligon Road in Ellicott City.

While she, her son Jeff and his 2-year-old son Noah huddled in a bedroom, away from the windows, a tree crashed through her roof, into the attic. Another tree lay uprooted across her front yard.

"I don't know if it was a tornado or just a storm. All of a sudden, the tree was on top of our house."

Howard County authorities said they had no reported injuries, and no sightings of a funnel cloud.

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