Destructive tornadoes battered Southern California. They are more common than you might think

Tribune Content Agency

LOS ANGELES — Two tornadoes that caused significant damage in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties Tuesday were part of a series of wild weather events across California this week.

But they were not as uncommon as you might think.

“People feel like we don’t get tornadoes in California, but we do actually get them here,” said Carol Smith, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard. “To get a tornado in any one spot is very rare, but to see a few of them a year is not uncommon.”

Several trees were uprooted in Ventura Harbor Village late Wednesday after a storm brought strong winds, heavy rain and a tornado warning to the region.

There are an average of one or two tornadoes per year in the four-county area including Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, and an average of seven to 10 per year across the state.

“It’s not like the Midwest; they are very weak, but they are tornadoes,” Smith said. “They do have rotation.”

The tornado that hit Montebello this week, damaging at least 17 buildings with wind gusts up to 110 mph, was the strongest to hit the Los Angeles area since March 1983, according to the weather service.

Notable twisters

That 1983 twister is one of the most well known to have hit Southern California. The tornado stripped part of the roof off the Los Angeles Convention Center before roaring south along Broadway, ripping apart houses, smashing brick storefronts and overturning cars. More than 150 buildings were damaged. Thirty-two people were hurt.

“I saw it coming, a big grayish, blackish swirling ball. It went right over the top of the post office there on Broadway and hit me like a ton of bricks,” one resident told The Times.

When a twister ripped through a Pico Rivera neighborhood in 1990, damaging several homes, residents were shocked. One person told The Times: “It was like something you only see on the ‘Wizard of Oz.’”

In 1991, a twister ripped the roofs off several homes in Irvine.

Another in 1993 caused significant property damage in Lake Forest.

In 2008, two tornado clouds in Riverside County flipped a big rig and derailed a freight train.

In 2014, a tornado touched down in South Los Angeles during a heavy rainstorm. The twister hopscotched over a 10-block span, ripping off a roof and damaging at least five homes.

In 2016, another tornado damaged roofs and parts of up to eight commercial structures in Vernon.

This week’s tornadoes

In Montebello, video on social media showed a dark funnel cloud and debris flying hundreds of feet into the air. The roof was torn off a Montebello building, several others were damaged, and a 1-foot-diameter tree was uprooted completely.

The National Weather Service confirmed Wednesday afternoon that a tornado lasting just two to three minutes was responsible for the chaos.

Micaela Vargas said her experience with the Montebello tornado was frightening. She’d been looking outside to see the rain when she noticed “a little tornado started building.”

“Then all of a sudden,” she said, “it started getting so big and it started getting so gray, and you could see everything in the air.”

One person was confirmed injured after the event. In addition, 11 mostly industrial buildings were red-tagged, meaning they were too dangerous to inhabit, and six more buildings sustained damage, according to the weather service. The unusual event also sent an HVAC unit hurtling out of the top of a building, and caused skylights to break and wood crossbeams to snap.

A “weak” tornado also touched down in Carpinteria on Tuesday. It was rated EF0 on a 0 to 5 scale and had winds of up to 75 miles per hour. The Montebello event, which occurred at 11:14 a.m. Wednesday, was stronger, at EF1.

One person was injured in the incident at the Sandpiper Village mobile home park in Carpinteria. The tornado “damaged around 25 mobile home units and there was minor tree damage to the cemetery adjacent to the mobile home park,” the weather service said.

The science

The Carpinteria and Montebello tornadoes formed after recent storms pushed cold air high into the atmosphere, causing it to destabilize. That created thunderstorm cells, which then began to rotate and ultimately become tornadoes.

Although Smith and her colleagues could see powerful thunderstorms brewing over the ocean Tuesday night, it is difficult to predict when a tornado is imminent. “You can see if there is an environment that is favorable for tornadoes to occur,” she said, “but to say, ‘Oh, there is going to be a tornado in this area,’ that’s harder.”

Smith said the Carpinteria tornado lasted two minutes. “They tend to be short-lived,” she said. “They speed up, and then they die down.”


(Los Angeles Times staff writers Hannah Fry and Hayley Smith contributed to this report.)