- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 30, 2002

LA PLATA, Md. The day after the worst tornado in Maryland history touched down in this small town, residents evaluated the devastation with sadness and determination.
"This is something out of the twilight zone," said Barbara Green, who was walking along Oak Avenue observing the damage. Her home several miles away was not damaged.
Larry Norton, who lives on Worcester Street, was just about to step into the shower Sunday when he heard his neighbor yelling that the tornado was coming. He huddled with his family in the basement. When they emerged, they saw that their Cape Cod cottage had been moved several feet and was resting on top of steps and shrubs, with the side and back wall almost completely gone.
"We're just very fortunate," Mr. Norton said.
La Plata, a town of about 6,500 in Southern Maryland, resembled a war zone yesterday. Many homes were leveled and enormous trees were strewn about while electrical wires zigzagged along the streets for miles. Even the water tower, with its mangled beams and torn-off top, had toppled over.
The tornado hit shortly after 7 p.m. Sunday, killed three persons and injured nearly 100 others.
William G. Erickson Jr. died in La Plata after his house collapsed, said Nina Voehl, a spokeswoman for Charles County. His wife, Susan, was expected to undergo surgery at Prince George's Hospital Center in Cheverly yesterday.
A neighbor, Laura Silk, said the Ericksons were visiting their new house, which was under construction, when the tornado struck.
Donald Hammonds was found in his car at U.S. 301 and Maryland Route 6. He died at Civista Medical Center in La Plata, said Capt. J.C. Montminy of the Charles County Sheriff's Office.
A tornado reportedly touched down in Prince Frederick also, killing Margaret Albey, 74.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening declared a state of emergency for Charles and Calvert counties, allowing the state to request the help of the National Guard, which sent troops to the area.
Bill DeAtley of Wicomico Street had planned to move soon. A mangled "for sale" sign still stands on the corner of the property, even though he had an offer on the table. The foundation of his two-story home shifted, and he is not sure whether the house is habitable.
"I had a contract to settle on the 17th, but I am sure they are going to change their minds," Mr. DeAtley said.
Damage to some homes was minimal, but others had entire sides missing.
The Johnson house on Oak Avenue had been in the family for more than 50 years. The washer and dryer were in the front yard, and an upstairs bathtub could be seen from the street. In another room, books were visible still on the shelves.
"I never thought anything like this would ever happen in La Plata," said Heather Johnson of nearby Ironsides, who grew up in the house with her father.
The National Weather Service preliminarily rated the tornado an F5 on the Fujita Scale, based on wind speed and damage. An F5 rating is the highest rating, with "incredible damage" and winds in excess of 261 mph.
If the preliminary findings are made final, it will be the first F5 tornado to ever touch down in Maryland, which averages four tornadoes a year. It would also be the first tornado to get that rating in the United States in three years.
There have been only two F4 storms in Maryland one in 1998 in Frostburg with no fatalities and one in 1926 in La Plata that killed 14 children at a school.
Meteorologists revised their evaluation after finding six substantial houses destroyed and a track of damage 24 miles long through Charles County with a swath 400 yards wide.
Charles County officials said a preliminary assessment showed about 90 businesses were damaged, including 27 that were destroyed. Town Manager Doug Miller said La Plata has about 180 businesses.
"Many of our best businesses are now out of business leveled," Mr. Miller said. "It takes the wind out of your sails."
County officials expected to have the first damage estimates by late today.
Meteorologist James Travers said the tornado appeared to have one funnel as it cut across Southern Maryland, although it may have had two funnels as it entered the Chesapeake Bay.
The storm blew papers 50 miles across the Bay to Dorchester and Talbot counties.
At Curran-Bromwell Funeral Home in Cambridge, Raymond Curran found a paper that appeared to be from a Charles County bank. It had totals from tellers and the words "Waldorf" and "La Plata" written on it.
In Oxford, Ben Gibson, 28, was watching TV about 7:50 p.m. when he heard the tornado warnings. He walked outside and caught a blank property transfer form from the supervisor of assessments in La Plata.
The storm ravaged other parts of the country and killed three other persons earlier in the day.
In Missouri, a tornado with winds of up to 180 mph and roughly two football fields wide plowed through the small town of Marble Hill, hurling a 12-year-old boy 50 yards to his death. At least 16 persons were injured and several homes were destroyed.
At least 30 persons were injured in Providence and Irvington, Ky., where Billy Garrett, 52, died when he was thrown about 200 feet from his mobile home, said Breckinridge County Coroner Bob Rhodes.
Dozens were injured in southern Illinois and a 69-year-old woman was found dead outside her home in the town of Dongola. In nearby Cypress, two second-floor classrooms of the brick Cypress Grade School were missing a roof and walls.
Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said state officials were compiling information for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to see if the area would qualify for disaster aid.
Jack Cahalan, a spokesman with the Maryland Emergency Management Administration, said power was knocked out to as many as 17,000 customers. By early yesterday afternoon, roughly 3,050 customers were still without power, according to the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative.
Many people said they felt fortunate and marveled at how some structures remained standing while others were demolished.
"We're very lucky that thing ripped through 25 yards the other way," said Sharon Richards, manager of the Best Western-La Plata Inn, the only hotel in town. "We just lost a few shingles and a few windows. If the power were back on, we could be open."
An emergency shelter has been set up at Thomas Stone High School in Waldorf by the American Red Cross, with cots, clothes and food for those families who have nothing.
Dominique Barnes, 13, and his five brothers and sisters were waiting there yesterday before being transferred to a local hotel. He said he had warned the family a tornado was coming, but no one believed him.
"When it was over, we looked outside and it looked like a bomb had hit our neighborhood with trucks in the woods and trees all over the place. But my family said from now on they will believe me," he said.
Guy Taylor contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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