Waterspout causes significant damage on Maryland’s Smith Island, injuring an 88-year-old woman

Waterspout causes significant damage on Maryland’s Smith Island, injuring an 88-year-old woman
·4 min read

A waterspout tornado that spun out of severe storms devastated a corner of Maryland’s Smith Island, an isolated Chesapeake Bay community that already had persistent erosion and a struggling seafood industry to worry about.

After forming Thursday night in the Chesapeake Bay, the cyclone tore into the bay-front community of Rhodes Point, where it ripped the roof and third story off a bed-and-breakfast and destroyed a trailer. It moved across the island to the village of Ewell, 2 miles away, damaging some 17 homes along the way, but sparing a tabernacle where three dozen people were meeting inside.

Lindsey Bradshaw was at the tabernacle when he, as a volunteer firefighter, received a call to report to a home. He immediately recognized the address: It was his mother’s. Fearing the worst as he arrived to find chaos, he was relieved when he and others discovered his mother, 88-year-old Doris Bradshaw, within the rubble with little more than some scratches. She remained hospitalized Friday afternoon.

“This is bad; this is real bad. It looks terrible,” Lindsey Bradshaw said Friday, gesturing to the rubble of his mother’s home. “But we could’ve been planning a funeral today.”

The tornado was a shock to a community used to facing the wrath of Chesapeake winds and waves. The damage was most severe in Rhodes Point, the westernmost of three Smith Island communities and the one most exposed to harsh weather. Ewell, on the island’s north end, where ferries run regularly to and from Crisfield on the mainland, also was affected, while Tylerton, to the south, was unscathed.

The focus Friday was on restoring power as residents began to clean up damage. The tornado damaged power poles and transformers, said Everett Landon, pastor of Calvary United Methodist Church on the island.

A ferry with three trucks and four poles arrived Friday afternoon in an effort to restore power to about 50 customers on the island of about 260 residents, but not all outages were expected to be restored by the day’s end.

An online fundraiser to repair and rebuild the damage had collected nearly $54,000 by Friday evening.

The National Weather Service said the waterspout came ashore from the west about 7:22 p.m., continued to track eastward toward the mainland, and was spotted later north of Crisfield, said Jeff Orrock, meteorologist in charge at the weather service’s Wakefield, Virginia, forecast office.

Waterspouts can occur in fair weather and are considered more common and less dangerous, though they can still cause damage; “tornadic” waterspouts, on the other hand, are essentially tornadoes that form over water, and are associated with severe storms.

Waterspouts occur relatively frequently on the water, Orrock said, but rarely spin up into anything serious or long-lived.

“This one was pretty significant,” he said. “This was a true tornado over water.”

Meteorologists estimate it ranked EF-1 on the Enhanced Fujita scale, with winds of between 73 and 112 mph.

There was little indication of any threat of a tornado. Wind gusts up to 50 mph had been reported nearby, and the weather service had issued a marine warning advising of dangerous winds on the bay. But atmospheric conditions did not suggest high risks of tornadoes that might have prompted a tornado watch.

The tornado likely formed too low in the atmosphere to have been anticipated or picked up on radar, Orrock said. Warm waters in the bay likely contributed to the tornado’s development, he said, as waterspouts typically require water temperatures to be relatively warm compared to the air, as well as high levels of humidity.

Video shared on social media Thursday night showed islanders watching in fear and shouting, “Oh, no!” as the waterspout swept onto shore from the bay, tossing debris into the air.

Of waterspouts, Landon said: “They’ll destroy one home and leave another untouched.”

Smith Island is the last inhabited island in Maryland’s share of the Chesapeake, about 5 miles north of Virginia’s Tangier Island. Because of decades of sea level rise and erosion that have made other bay islands disappear, Smith Island is actually an archipelago of islands consisting of three main communities: Ewell, Rhodes Point and Tylerton.

Now, the island is perhaps best known for its signature cake of multiple thin layers, with a chocolate fudge frosting. It was named state dessert in 2008. Along with neighbors on Tangier to the south, Smith Islanders are also known for speaking in a unique pattern and dialect likened to Old English.

Smith Island was first charted by Captain John Smith in the 1600s and named for early landowner Henry Smith.

Once a thriving bay community of as many as 800 people in the early 1900s, economic forces have reduced its population just as wind and waves have shrunk its footprint in the Chesapeake.

Baltimore Sun reporter Christine Condon contributed to this article.