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La Plata, Md., Tornado Remembered 10 Years Later

UPDATED April 28, 2012

By WeatherBug Meteorologist, Chad Merrill

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A small town in a state where tornadoes seldom occur was ravaged by a deadly twister on this day one decade ago. Just 30 miles south of the nation`s capital, the small southern Maryland town of La Plata was nearly flattened by an F4 tornado that damaged more than half of the downtown buildings, claiming three lives.

The storm system responsible for the deadly La Plata twister began early on the morning of April 28, 2002, producing severe thunderstorms through the Ohio Valley. As a strong upper -level trough with fast- moving jet stream winds along a vigorous cold front moved east of the Ohio Valley, supercells, or rotating thunderstorms, quickly headed towards the Appalachian Mountains.

The storms raced across the Appalachian Ridge in Virginia between 3 and 4 p.m. While many of the storms weakened over the highest peaks of Virginia`s Blue Ridge Mountains, the storm that struck La Plata, Md., remained a strong supercell as it moved from West Virginia through northern Virginia into the warm and humid airmass over southern Maryland.

The tornado first touched down in Marbury, Md., 12 miles west of La Plata, at 6:56 p.m. EDT before intensifying to an F3 as it approached the west side of La Plata. A second weaker tornado then formed just south of the first tornado and both tornadoes crossed the heart of La Plata between 7:02 p.m. EDT and 7:07 p.m. EDT, causing widespread F2 and F3 damage.

The worst damage was rated F5 with winds between 261 and 318 mph. However, the National Weather Service assessment team later determined some of that was due to flying debris from a nearby lumber company. Therefore, the final assessment rated the tornado as an F4 with winds 207 to 260 mph on the Fujita Scale.

In total, 638 homes and 143 businesses were damaged. The twister racked up more than $100-million in damages.

These powerful tornadoes don`t occur regularly, especially in Maryland. Only one percent of tornadoes in the U.S. are rated F4 or F5 and Maryland has only seen four of these strong tornadoes since weather records started. Only six F4 tornadoes along the Atlantic Coast have occurred farther north and east of the La Plata storm. This isn`t the first time La Plata has been hit, another destructive tornado ripped through in November 1926.

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Story Image: This is the damage to a home in La Plata following the April 28, 2002 tornado. (Photo courtesy of NOAA)

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