Fall brought gulp of relief to parched year

In Md., drought, tornado, heat wave marked 2002

January 01, 2003|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Had it arrived yesterday, the all-day rain expected today in Maryland might have nearly erased the shortage of rain that accumulated during the record-breaking drought of 2002.

As much as an inch of rain is expected today as a storm system sweeps across the region. And more rain is possible tomorrow and Friday.

The old year ended with Maryland's streams full, farm fields soggy, and reservoirs low but recovering. Precipitation totals for the calendar year will enter the record books at just over 39 inches - 2.6 inches below normal for Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

That's not how 2002 began. There was a rainfall deficit that had been growing since September 2001. By the following September, the drought had grown to rival those of the 1960s and 1930s.

It withered farm fields and fried lawns. Reservoirs, streams and wells dropped to record lows, prompting state and local officials to impose voluntary, and later mandatory curbs on water consumption. Some remain in effect in Central Maryland.

With crop losses ranging from 20 percent to 80 percent, Gov. Parris N. Glendening sought and won federal drought disaster declarations for 21 of the state's 23 counties, enabling hard-hit farmers to seek low-cost loans.

The year provided plenty of other weather news - a mild and nearly snowless winter, a deadly April tornado in Southern Maryland and a hot summer with the worst air quality in years along the Interstate 95 corridor.

But the big weather story all year was the drought.

Last January, after four months of below-normal precipitation, Baltimore's reservoirs had fallen to 61 percent of their combined capacity.

Public Works Director George L. Winfield called on consumers to voluntarily conserve water. The city began pumping 50 million gallons of water daily from the Susquehanna River, hoping to spare the reservoirs. The flow would later increase to 130 million gallons a day, and continue for a record 10 months.

It was an unusual step for the city to take in midwinter. But water managers worried about deeper problems when the normally drier weather of late spring and summer arrived.

"If nothing changes by the spring of the year," Winfield warned, "then we may be imposing water restrictions."

The state followed by issuing a drought "warning" for 15 counties in Central Maryland and the Eastern Shore. It asked residents, businesses and industry to voluntarily curb water use.

The dry, mild winter had its compensations. The airport recorded only 2.3 inches of snow last winter, all from a single storm in January.

Temperatures reached the 70s for at least a couple of days each month from December through March.

But the drought continued. Many communities in Central and Western Maryland, including Taneytown, Westminster, Thurmont and Cumberland, imposed stiff mandatory curbs on water use as their springs, wells and reservoirs dried up. Mount Savage was forced to truck in water to supply part of the town served by a failing well.

Farmers trucked in water for their livestock and applied for federal help to drill deeper wells. Drillers were backed up for weeks as residential wells sputtered.

On April 5, Glendening declared a drought emergency in Central Maryland outside Baltimore's water service area. He imposed mandatory curbs where they weren't already in place.

The rest of April then brought a 1-inch surplus of rain at the airport. It was the first surplus since August 2001, and would be the last until October 2002.

A spate of thunderstorms in late April and early May brought more relief, but at a price.

Deadly tornado

On April 28, one of the deadliest and most destructive tornadoes in Maryland history struck Charles and Calvert counties in Southern Maryland. Six people were killed and dozens were injured. The town of La Plata sustained the worst of the damages, initially estimated at $120 million.

At first ranked as Maryland's first-ever F5 twister, with winds exceeding 260 mph, the killer storm was later downgraded to an F4.

Maryland has recorded only two other F4s: a 1926 tornado that killed 17 people in La Plata, and another in 1998 that destroyed 30 homes in Frostburg.

Churning across La Plata at nearly 60 mph, the twister carved a path of destruction visible to cameras aboard a NASA satellite. The trail of damage spanned 650 yards. Brick and steel buildings were destroyed, a water tower toppled, cars were tossed and demolished.

Many residents were trapped or injured in the debris. Hailstones the size of baseballs fell in some places. Papers and other light debris carried aloft were recovered later on the Eastern Shore.

After ripping 30 miles across Charles County, the tornado crossed the Patuxent. Two of the day's dead were killed in Calvert County when their home was lifted off its cinder-block supports and tossed into a nearby ravine

A spate of violent thunderstorms followed. And when the rains stopped, the drought resumed - only now it was getting hot, too.

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