Southern Md. slammed by storms; two dead

Fierce storms roared across much of Maryland yesterday, with high winds, downpours, large hail and apparent tornadoes - one of them in the Charles County town of La Plata last night that injured dozens of people and was blamed for the death of two, including one in Calvert County, authorities said.

A 54-year-old man caught in the storm was rushed to the emergency room of Civista Medical Center in downtown La Plata, but medical staff could not resuscitate him. A preliminary examination of the man's body found no obvious signs of trauma, but he may have had a previous medical condition, said Christine M. Stefanides, president and CEO of the medical center.

In neighboring Calvert, an occupant of a tenant house on Creek's End Farm near Prince Frederick was killed when the apparent tornado touched down about 7:20 p.m. in Hallowing Point and leveled the house, authorities said. A second occupant of the house was flown to National Hospital Center in Washington for treatment.

In La Plata, many were trapped inside area businesses and houses as the storm ripped roofs from buildings, knocked down walls and covered roadways with debris and downed power lines.

Emergency workers were checking the many damaged homes and buildings overnight for victims who might have been trapped under rubble.

Meteorologists said the storm struck La Plata shortly after 7 p.m. Within minutes, other areas of Charles and Calvert counties also were hit.

Police dispatchers on the Eastern Shore said tornadoes also touched down just after 8 p.m. in southern Dorchester County near Taylor's Island.

The storms traveled from west to east across the Chesapeake Bay and were gone by 8:30 p.m., said Julie Arthur, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Sterling, Va.. She said tornado warnings were issued for sections of Wicomico and Dorchester counties on the Eastern Shore, but she did not have reports of any touching down there.

The weather service was sending two investigators to La Plata today to examine the widespread damage and determine whether a tornado was to blame.

More than 60 people were injured, according to early accounts of the devastation in the town of about 6,500 residents.

Before the apparent tornado, the storm drenched the area with sheets of rain and pelted it with 3-inch-wide hailstones. Police reported broken windshields and windows and other damage from hail and high winds as the storm intensified.

The suspected tornado touched down at U.S. 301 and headed east down Charles Street in La Plata, said Trooper Harry Slifer of the state police barracks there.

The Charles County Emergency Operations Center set up a command post at the local courthouse, and fire and rescue workers from the state fire marshal's office and neighboring counties were on the scene.

In the aftermath, Gov. Parris N. Glendening activated the state's emergency management administration. Local authorities also ordered a curfew to keep people off debris-covered roads and away from downed power lines.

The storm cut a path through the center of the town, where roofs were ripped off buildings and windows were blown out, said Nina Voehl, a county spokeswoman.

By 11 p.m., an emergency shelter had been set up in Charles County at Thomas Stone High School, said Quentin Banks, spokesman for Maryland Emergency Management Agency. County schools were to be closed today.

Banks said the twister cut a 12-mile-long swath through LaPlata and Hughesville, all the way to Benedict on the Patuxent River. La Plata had most of its power knocked out and a dozen or more buildings in the town were "flattened," an official said at a news conference last night.

Even the local hospital was damaged.

"We took a hit from the tornado, made certain our patients and personnel were OK and kept going," said Civista Medical Center's Stefanides. The hospital sits in the center of the town near the intersection of U.S. 301 and East Charles Street.

The hospital's staff was alerted about the tornado's approach through the local TV and radio stations. "We were prepared," Stefanides said. "Before it hit us, we moved many of our patients out of the direct path of the storm in time to prevent them from being struck by flying glass." Off-duty personnel were called in or came in on their own, she added.

Stefanides said the hospital had some structural damage - broken windows and damaged exteriors - but otherwise escaped serious damage. But nearly every car on the hospital parking lot had its windows blown out by flying debris. Stefanides described the scene as "a real mess."

Within minutes of the apparent tornado's hit, the hospital began receiving the injured. Some five hours later, the hospital continued to receive patients, Stefanides said.

About 50 patients were treated for minor injuries such as cuts from flying glass. Another 14 were treated for more serious injuries that included broken bones and at least seven people who suffered the worst injuries were flown by helicopters to other area medical centers. St. Mary's Hospital in Leonardtown treated five patients for minor injuries suffered when their house collapsed during the storm.

Arthur said the violent weather was triggered by a mass of cold air colliding with warm, moist air.

The typical reaction, she said, is heavy storms with the possibility of tornadoes.

The storms brought heavy rain to Central Maryland, with more than an inch reported at Baltimore-Washington International Airport - continuing the trend of a wet April break in the region's drought.

The same storm system battered the Tennessee and Ohio valleys yesterday with tornadoes, high wind and hail before the system swept east. Four deaths were blamed on the storms, including that of a 12-year-old boy who was catapulted from his bed.

On the system's northern edge, up to 20 inches of snow fell overnight in Wisconsin. At its peak, the storm left 40,000 people without power in northern Wisconsin.

A tornado cut a four-mile swath through Marble Hill, Mo., south of St. Louis, early yesterday and swept a family from their home. Billy Hoover, 12, was dropped about 40 yards away and died, authorities said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.