Tornado destroys La Plata, Maryland
Letter No. 289 | May 3, 2002
Since 1975, I have attended annually a Jesuit religious retreat house located in Southern Maryland, not far from La Plata, Maryland. The retreat house sits high on a bluff overlooking the Potomac River and affords a tranquil setting for prayerful reflection and meditation. The location is less than an hour's drive and about 40 miles from my home in Alexandria, Virginia.
En route to the retreat house, I have always passed through La Plata, a town of about 5,600 population. On several occasions, I have stopped out of curiosity to see the sights of the town. An old courthouse with high pillars built in the mid-1800s stood at the center of town. Matlock, the white-haired Southern lawyer with the white suit from the old TV program, could have easily graced its halls. La Plata was a quaint town with a lot of early American history. Early English settlers came to this Southern Maryland area in the early 1600s.
Located nearby is Port Tobacco, the location of one of the earliest Catholic Churches in America, built in 1798, and still an active church. Also, it's part of the John Wilkes Booth flight trail after his assassination of President Lincoln. As I approached the town, I always saw a huge water tower in the distance with the name "La Plata" in big letters written on the side.
On the Sunday evening of April 28 at 7 p.m., a church group in the town had gathered for a meeting to plan a trip to New York to assist the volunteer workers at Ground Zero. Then, suddenly Ground Zero came to La Plata! A tornado with an F5 strength on the Fujita Scale demolished La Plata in a few minutes and the water tower was toppled. The technical term F5 translates to a tornado that causes incredible damage with winds of 260-320 miles per hour and can carry a strong frame house off its foundation for a considerable distance; toss big cars 100 yards, and uproot and debark trees. The result was millions of dollars in property damage, two fatalities, and great anguish and suffering among the populace. What's odd is that the town was struck by a similar tornado in 1926, causing 13 school children to die.
On my next annual trip to the retreat house, I will miss seeing the huge water tower with the name "La Plata" and the town itself.