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University of Maryland tells students to shelter from tornado despite no official warning being issued

The University of Maryland warned students and staff on the College Park campus late Monday afternoon: “A Tornado Warning has been issued for the UMD campus ... Seek shelter immediately, avoid windows."

But there was no indication of a tornado as downpours associated with the remnants of Hurricane Florence moved through Prince George’s County, according to the National Weather Service.

“We have nothing to do with it,” said Jim Lee, meteorologist in charge of the weather service’s Baltimore/Washington forecast office. “We have not issued a tornado warning.”

A spokeswoman for the University of Maryland Police Department, which sent out the alert at 5:36 p.m., said officials were warned about a possible tornado by meteorologists at AccuWeather.com. About 30 minutes later, campus police sent out an alert canceling the warning.

“The rotation has shifted to the north,” they said.

AccuWeather produces its own forecasts but is not responsible for official severe weather watches or warnings; that is the purview of the weather service. But the university employs the Pennsylvania-based weather company to gauge weather threats for a more narrow focus on its campus, said university police Sgt. Rosanne Hoaas.

“While weather-related incidents are often reported for broad geographic regions, AccuWeather targets the specific footprint of our campus community,” she said in a statement.

The National Weather Service’s tornado warnings are often based on radar images. They recognize tornadoes by a hook shape that can appear on radar in areas where funnel clouds develop. The warnings are usually issued across areas covering a dozen or more square miles, depending on the size and speed of storms.

Jonathan Porter, vice president of AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions, said the company’s meteorologists saw a “strong rotation signature” on radar that meteorologists “felt could produce a tornado at any moment.” The same weather system produced a deadly tornado in Richmond, Va., and he called it “a very dangerous weather situation.”

Based on criteria the company established with the university, they decided it warranted a tornado warning in College Park, Porter said.

“That criteria in come cases may be different from that which the government might be using to issue tornado warnings for the public,” Porter said.

While the weather service did not issue any tornado warnings in Maryland on Monday, it did issue a tornado watch in areas south of Baltimore, including Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties and all of Southern Maryland. It canceled the watch just after 8 p.m.

Porter said it was not yet clear if a tornado actually developed, or caused any damage.

“It can take some time for those kinds of reports to come in,” he said. “We’re still monitoring for damage reports that may have been produced by this particular cell.”

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