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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 04/28/2010

Tornado devastates La Plata, Md.: April 28, 2002

By Jason Samenow
NASA satellite image showing the damage path cutting through La Plata, Md.

On this day (April 28) in 2002, the strongest tornado on record to hit Maryland flattened portions of Charles and Calvert counties, with the town of La Plata ground zero. The tornado was classified as an F4 (on the old Fujita scale) when it ripped through that town, indicating it possessed winds of 207-260 mph.

The National Weather Service in Sterling provides this account as the tornado slammed into La Plata:

The tornado strengthened and widened further as it moved into and through downtown La Plata. This intensification may have been aided by the rear-flank downburst. Streaks of damage observed through town was indicative of F3 and F4 damage on the Fujita Damage Scale. These streaks and eyewitness accounts lead us to believe that this was a multi-vortex tornado (more than one funnel circulating around the parent tornado circulation). Through downtown La Plata, the width of the damage (F1) extends out almost a half-mile (approximately 650 yards across). ... It must also be stated that the tornado was moving at an unusually fast speed of 50 knots (according to radar estimates) which is equal to 58 mph. That is nearly a mile a minute. Therefore, the damage ... happened in just a few seconds.

Keep reading for more on the La Plata tornado of 2002...

Tornado photographed moving across the Chesapeake Bay from Calvert County's eastern shore. Tornado was a F1/F2 at this point and had already traveled 38 miles. Image courtesy NWS.

The tornado cut a damage path spanning 40 miles, destroying or damaging 800 homes and businesses and causing over $100 million in damage. In all, the storm killed 5 people in Charles and Calvert counties. In addition to the tornado, the responsible thunderstorm generated softball-sized hail.

Kevin Ambrose's Washington Weather Book describes the damage in La Plata:

Parts of the quiet, southern Maryland community could only be described as a war zone. There was massive destruction in the downtown section, including the town's shopping center and business establishments - located adjacent to the intersection of Routes 6 and 301. Winds were so violent that some homes were completely swept off their foundations and trees were stripped of their bark. La Plata bank receipts were found 70 miles away by a man in Seaford, Delaware.

This was neither the first nor the deadliest, tornado to hit La Plata. A tornado in 1926 killed 16, including 13 children when, on its 15 mile journey, it crushed a school house.

Do you have any memories of the 2002 La Plata tornado?

Additional 2002 La Plata tornado resources:

By Jason Samenow  | April 28, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Thunderstorms  
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Chesapeake Alley in action...1926 and 2002 were probably the worst tornadoes, but I think there was also one near College Park in Sept., 2001.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | April 28, 2010 12:20 PM | Report abuse

What a day that was in 2002. wow. And this is a great collection of pictures, links, and information!

Posted by: Camden-CapitalWeatherGang | April 28, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

One of the earliest conversations I had with my husband was discussing where we were from--when he said he was from near La Plata, I asked if he had been there during this tornado. Indeed he had, my husband watched the tornado uproot a huge tree from his front yard in Port Tobacco, as it made its way towards La Plata. He and his family spent about a week chainsawing through fallen trees before they were able to get out of their rural road. There is still a big empty lot in the middle of downtown La Plata where Posey's market used to stand before it was destroyed.

Posted by: jboastfield | April 28, 2010 1:41 PM | Report abuse

I remember the College Park one. I was working in Silver Spring at the time. As I recall, two young women went airborne in a car. I'm fairly certain there were fatalities.

Posted by: tinkerbelle | April 28, 2010 2:09 PM | Report abuse

I believe we were driving up I-81 that day and got stuck in a backup because a tractor trailer was blown over.

My wife is from SoMd and we drove through it some time afterward. It was just like you hear about where one house is completely destroyed and the one next door or across the street is untouched.

Posted by: spgass1 | April 28, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

I think that was near the same time where there was a microburst very near Shirlington in Arlington. Does anyone remember that one?

Posted by: Section406 | April 28, 2010 4:41 PM | Report abuse

To the best of my recollection, the storm that produced the 2001 College Park tornado traveled north/northeast along I 95, with reports of tornados and funnel clouds from Stafford or Prince William County all the way up to Laurel. I remember calling my father, who worked just off I 95 at Seminary Road, about the storm, and my mother, who lived east of Shirlington. (Neither was effected) I had heard warnings about that storm on NOAA Weather Radio as well as on TV; I had the phone in one ear, weather radio in the other, and the TV on as well while I was calling my family.

The two women who were killed in College Park were sisters and both attended the University of Maryland. They had just left their father's office on campus; he was injured by the tornado too. The women were driving somewhere (home?) in a car together when the tornado apparently lifted them off the ground then slammed them back down.

I remember hearing about a microburst-type event at Shirlington, as well as accounts that people who were repairing the Pentagon saw a funnel cloud in the air. Can you imagine if the funnel cloud had come to ground where they were repairing the damage from Flight 77?

As far as the La Plata tornado goes, I don't remember finding out about it until some hours had passed. I don't think there was any exceptional weather at my house (in Takoma Park). I was wide-eyed when I learned what had happened.

Posted by: Murre | April 28, 2010 8:00 PM | Report abuse

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