Marylanders Rattled by Historic Tornadoes but Avoid Major Catastrophe

Craig Hudson for The Washington Post
Storm damage in Gaithersburg.

Residents surveyed damage to their neighborhoods on Thursday and work crews deployed across Montgomery County to clear uprooted trees, restore power and reopen blocked roads after a “supercell” storm unleashed multiple tornadoes that swept across Maryland the night before.

Emergency responders worked swiftly Wednesday evening to rescue people from damaged homes and sent at least five people to the hospital with injuries that were not life-threatening.

Montgomery County officials said the region was fortunate to have avoided more-serious injuries during a storm that hit the heart of the county in the early evening, when many people are normally commuting or having dinner. Residents of neighborhoods hardest hit by the storms credited early warnings on their phones and television advising them to seek shelter. Montgomery County Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard said the tornado missed most population centers as it barreled through the county.

“All in all, we got very lucky,” said Stoddard, who was overseeing the county’s response while County Executive Marc Elrich (D) was at a San Diego conference to recruit life sciences businesses to the region.

The Capital Weather Gang reported that the storm Wednesday was one of the most significant tornado outbreaks in the state in years. There have only been seven days since 1950 in which the state has experienced half a dozen or more tornadoes. The National Weather Service said it confirmed five tornadoes in Maryland, down from a preliminary count of 16 on Wednesday. However, the agency said information still being collected could result in additional confirmations. There also was one confirmed tornado in Leesburg, Va., and one in Inwood, W.VA., the National Weather Service said Thursday evening. All of the tornadoes were rated 0 or 1 on the Enhanced Fujita scale, a measurement of tornado strength.

Several rotating thunderstorms known as supercells formed across Maryland on Wednesday evening, and one that swept across Montgomery, Howard and Baltimore counties formed multiple twisters that tore through areas near Darnestown, Poolesville, Gaithersburg, Olney, Columbia and Baltimore.

On Thursday, utility workers in cherry pickers repaired wires torn down by fallen trees, and the growl of chain saws and wood chippers filled the air as residents in Deer Park and Olde Towne – the neighborhoods hit hardest by the tornado in Gaithersburg, about 16 miles north of D.C. – began removing large branches and debris in their yards.

Pete Piringer, spokesman for the Montgomery County Fire & Rescue Service, said five houses across the county were structurally damaged by fallen trees – four of them in Gaithersburg. He did not have details on where the fifth house was located.

Several major roads in the Poolesville area blocked Wednesday night by fallen trees – including Route 28, Partnership, Sugarland, Whites Ferry and Germantown – had been cleared and reopened by Thursday morning, Piringer said.

Video footage from Montgomery County showed a large, cone-shaped funnel near Darnestown and Poolesville – a 1 on the Enhanced Fujita scale, with winds up to 105 mph, but which at first appeared typical of those rated at least a 2, which are much more common in the Plains and the South than the Mid-Atlantic. The last tornado rated at least a 2 to strike Maryland during June was in 1998. The devastating tornado that ripped through La Plata, Md., in April 2002, killing three and injuring more than 120 people, was a 4 out of 5 on the Fujita scale.

There were four other confirmed tornadoes in Maryland, according to the National Weather Service – a 1 on the Enhanced Fujita scale in Columbia, Southern Baltimore County and Middle River, and a 0 in Eldersburg. The Leesburg tornado was rated a 1, and the tornado centered in Inwood, W.VA. was rated a 0.

Kevin and Linda Ramsey, both 63, live across the street from a home that took a direct hit from a 100-foot-tall tree that fell on the roof and trapped five residents inside. The Ramseys lost a giant oak in their backyard, but it fell away from the house.

“We’re pretty thankful because it could have been a lot worse,” Kevin Ramsey said as he and his wife surveyed the damage in the yard of the home where they’ve lived since 1988.

The couple and their two Chihuahua mixes hunkered down in their basement when they got the tornado alert. They said the peak of the storm lasted no more than 10 minutes.

“It didn’t sound like a train, but it was a loud hum and we could hear branches and the rain hitting the house,” Linda Ramsey said.

Police officers and city and county workers were on the scene Thursday directing traffic, responding to calls from residents and checking on damage.

Residents of Deer Park walked down its quiet streets to assess the aftermath of the storm that left the neighborhood looking as though it had been spit out from a food processor.

“This is the kind of thing you have nightmares about living in this neighborhood,” said Konstantin Cherco, 38, as he walked his dog past homes that had holes punched through them by trees. “We love having these great big beautiful trees, but they can cause damage.”

Felix Nlewemchi, 65, was washing debris off his car Thursday morning in Deer Park in front of a group home for developmentally disabled adults where he works as an aide. Nlewemchi said residents were scared Wednesday evening, but he moved them to the basement before the twister hit.

“It was terrible,” Nlewemchi said, but he was grateful for the warning system that alerted residents. “I was happy with science that they can discover and tell us these things before they happen. … I commend the weather people for the very good job. It was a narrow escape.”

In addition to the house on Dogwood Drive where the damage left five people hospitalized, authorities said, three more homes in the Olde Towne neighborhood were damaged by fallen trees, but the residents escaped without injury.

“I’ve lived here 75 years and we’ve never had nothing like this come through Gaithersburg,” said Jacqueline Harding, who was heading to the grocery store Wednesday evening and took shelter in a nearby house as the tornado approached. “Nothing that would tear trees down and stuff. Not this bad,” she said.

Photos from the area showed residents gathering on streets littered with tree branches and, in some cases, giant tree trunks.

“It was really quick. I think in those moments you don’t really understand what’s happening until it’s over,” said Mariela Cabanillas, a Gaithersburg resident who sheltered in a basement as the tornado swept through. “The wind was super loud and the rain was really hard.”

Some residents were temporarily without power as the storm downed power lines. By Thursday morning, county officials said power had been restored to all but a handful of neighborhoods, with just a few hundred households without electricity. According to Pepco’s outage map, fewer than 100 customers in the county were without power Thursday afternoon.