Saturday was a harsh reminder of the power of Mother Nature, and April in general is the time for severe weather in the District. It was this month 9 years ago that La Plata, Md., was flattened by an F4 tornado.
The weather conditions on April 28, 2002 were similar to the setup this past Saturday. A vigorous cold front with strong upper-level winds was moving east of the Ohio Valley, heading toward the Appalachian Ridge. Supercell thunderstorms, or severe thunderstorms with strong rotation, quickly bolted toward the Blue Ridge in Virginia before dissipating over the mountains. One particular severe thunderstorm with strong rotation maintained its intensity from the West Virginia Panhandle into northern Virginia.
Feeding off plenty of warm, humid air across southern Maryland, the storm produced a tornado that first touched down 12 miles west of La Plata, Md., in Marbury just prior to 7 p.m. A second weaker tornado formed just south of the first tornado with both twisters crossing the heart of La Plata between 7:02 and 7:07 p.m.
NASA satellite image showing the path of the La Plata tornado
When it was all done, 638 homes and 143 businesses were damaged with more than $100 million in damages. The worst damage was rated F5 with winds between 261 and 318 m.p.h. The National Weather Service's final assessment indicated the tornado ranked as an F4.
Destruction produced from the F4 tornado that roared through La Plata, Md. Photo courtesy of Barbara Watson, NOAA/NWS
This was a rare tornado for Maryland. The state has only experienced 4 of these strong tornadoes since weather records started. However, La Plata had been hit in the past by a destructive tornado; one ripped through in November 1926.
This is just a cruel reminder to be on guard for quickly changing weather conditions this time of the year and have a contingency plan when severe weather threatens your area.