Smith Island, Md., hit by damaging tornadic waterspout

Smith Island, Md., hit by damaging tornadic waterspout


An unusual and intense tornado waterspout tore through parts of Smith Island, Md., on Thursday evening, leaving behind significant damage to homes.

Videos show the lofty twister, which developed from a strong, rotating thunderstorm over the Chesapeake Bay, barreling onto an island community in the middle of the bay, surrounded by a spinning plume of water.

There were minor injuries, although no one was “badly hurt” or killed, said Ewell Fire Department President Robert Jones, according to reporting from Chesapeake Bay Magazine.

The funnel cloud “just looked like a normal water spout, but it kept on coming,” said Betty Tyler, whose bed-and-breakfast was damaged in the storm. “It didn’t stop when it got to land … tore the third floor off my building. Completely gone. Destroyed my neighbor’s house. She was in the bed and that’s the only room that didn’t get crushed.”

As she described the damage in a telephone interview Friday, Tyler said her 88-year-old neighbor appeared to be unharmed. “They got her out,” Tyler said. “Her whole house crumbled around her,” she said. “It’s just a pile of rubble.”

Tyler said neither she nor any guests were in the bed-and-breakfast when the waterspout struck. She said the damage extended along the path of the waterspout.

“Boats flipped over,” she said. “The gas station here, all the gas pumps are laying down on the ground.”

Images on social media show collapsed homes and shredded walls across an area that’s home to just over 200 people. Smith Island is made up of three island communities and lies on the border of Maryland and Virginia’s territorial waters about a dozen miles from the mainland.

“We stand ready to assist the local response,” tweeted Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) on Thursday evening.

“Just spoke to Somerset County Sheriff Ron Howard regarding the situation on Smith Island following last night’s storm,” he added Friday morning on Twitter. Damage assessment teams are on the ground. We’ve offered him the full resources of the state to assist with the response.”

The tornado, which affected the community of Rhodes Point about 7:30 pm on Thursday, has yet to be officially rated by the National Weather Service. Such a rating requires an in-person survey by forecasters, which is typically conducted within a couple of days of a twister.

The tornado struck with little warning, preceded only by a Special Weather Statement that warned of 45 mph wind gusts. As Smith Island lies near the midpoint of three National Weather Service radar detectors, radar beams intersected the storm at about 8,000 feet above the ground; this was probably too high up to properly detect the type of atmospheric spin that could have warranted a tornado warning.

Waterspouts are often falsely believed to be harmless seaborne spinups, akin to dust devils, that rapidly decompose as they encounter land. Some so-called fair-weather waterspouts, not associated with thunderstorms, do fit this description.

But tornado waterspouts, according to NOAA, “have the same characteristics as a land tornado” despite developing over open water — and can cause substantial damage upon landfall.

Such tornadic waterspouts sometimes accompany hurricanes and are occasionally experienced along the Gulf Coast, particularly western Florida. Noteworthy twister outbreaks in 1999, 2016 and 2020 all involved extensive damage caused by tornadic waterspouts.

The environment over Maryland on Thursday had ingredients seemingly unfavorable for twister development, with strong instability — atmospheric energy akin to fuel for storms — but very weak wind shear, which helps thunderstorms organize and spin. As a result, forecasters at the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center did not designate a risk area for tornadoes.

Thunderstorms sometimes rotate, and produce twisters, in environments that appear inhospitable to tornado development.

Terrain features such as rivers and hills have been known to increase the amount of atmospheric spin available to storms in hard-to-predict ways, though it is unclear that what is allowed Thursday’s tornado to develop despite an unfavorable atmosphere.

A GoFundMe effort has been set up to assist in the recovery and cleanup.

This is a developing story and has been updated.

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