College Park recuperates from devastating bow echo storm
Heavy rain and tornado-level winds ripped through College Park on July 12, leaving behind a rash of utility outages and broad swaths of debris for city crews and residents alike to deal with.
“The department of public works estimates that several hundred trees came down during the storm,” said Assistant City Manager Bill Gardiner, adding that it took about 10 days for all of them to be removed from public rights of way. Prince George’s County and the cities of Hyattsville, Laurel and Rockville sent crews and equipment to support College Park’s recovery efforts, he added.
Gardiner estimated that the cost to the city would be about $750,000. This estimate does not include damage to private property; those costs land squarely on the shoulders of homeowners and, in some cases, their insurance companies.
Pepco’s online outage map indicated that the storm left many hundreds of households in College Park without power, and residents’ social media posts suggested that full restoration took several days. Temperatures on July 13 and 14 reached the low 90s, with up to 94% humidity, according to Weather Underground and LocationConditions.com.
Victoria MacDonald, a Berwyn resident, was caught off guard by the storm’s severity and said she wished that the University of Maryland had used its warning siren to caution residents of the impending storm, rather than sending only phone alerts. “Maybe that has to be looked at, in my opinion,” she said, “what are the criteria?”
Bob Kuligowski, a meteorologist with decades of experience who lives in College Park, said the storm was a part of a bow echo formation of thunderstorms that started in central West Virginia and then swept east. Bow echo storm systems typically have high-speed, destructive winds; Kuligowski noted that the damage and outages in College Park typically happen when this kind of event “hits a densely populated area … [it] played havoc with the electrical grid.”
Some residents lost more than just power. Kathy Bryant, a fourth generation College Park homeowner, was devastated that a century-old tree fell on her house, destroying the back porch and breaking several windows.
“I was at the front of the house, and the house started shaking violently,” she said, “so I went to the back of the house … and it started shaking even more violently.” After the shaking subsided and the storm passed, Bryant left her house to find that it had claimed one of her family heirlooms.
“[My] approximately 130-year-old pecan tree had fallen down in my backyard,” she said. Bryant mourned the loss of the tree not only because it was planted by her great uncle, but also because she claims it was the champion, or tallest, pecan tree in Maryland, according to measurements taken three years ago.
Others lost more than remarkable flora and back porches. Strong winds ripped the top floor off a house in Lakeland, and MacDonald reported that a student living there was taken to the hospital with injuries. Another home on Potomac Avenue was nearly bisected by a falling tree. Although the current occupants (who could not be reached for comment) weren’t home at the time of the storm, Boyd Conley, who built the house, said that it “looks like a total loss.”
Conley said he built the house and lived there with his wife and children for years before moving to Rockville. When he heard about the damage to his old home, he said he had to come down to see it for himself. “It really touches the heart,” he said, “we used to host Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas dinner” in the dining room — the room most damaged by the tree.
“I just thank God no one was hurt,” Conley continued. He said he learned that the current owners typically spent their evenings in the dining room, usually right around the time the storm came through; they had decided to go to a casino that night instead. “They really won big,” Conley joked.
Bryant and other residents reported that they saw a tornado spout touch down, and she blamed it for the loss of her pecan tree. Kuligowski, however, was skeptical. “I don’t want to come across as ‘no, you didn’t see that’ when I wasn’t there,” he said, but he did note that the National Weather Service (NWS) determined that the storm did not spawn a tornado.
Tornadoes aside, the storm was a destructive affair in its own right. Kuligowski said that the NWS team cited wind speeds of 90 miles per hour, which is equivalent to an F1 tornado – though the storm had straight-line, instead of circular, winds. He also said that this is the most severe storm he has seen in College Park since June 2012.
In 2021, a team of climate researchers at Newcastle University reported in Science Daily that “rising temperatures will intensify future rainfall extremes … with largest increases [in frequency] to short thunderstorms,” including bow echo storms like this one. Kuligowski, however, urges caution in chalking this particular freak storm up to climate change.
“I believe climate change is happening,” he said. “I’m just very reluctant to try to say for sure how much climate change did or did not contribute to a particular event. Any extreme weather event is always the result of a whole bunch of stuff.”
Though this storm is now behind us, College Park should be braced for severe weather in the months to come. An Aug. 4 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that the agency expects an “above-normal” Atlantic hurricane season, with potentially as many as 5 major hurricanes — storms with wind speeds of 111 miles per hour or more. And, in July, researchers at Colorado State University told Reuters that there was a 50% chance that one of those storms would make landfall on the East Coast.