Two tornadoes that caused significant damage in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties on Tuesday were part of a series of wild weather events in California this week.
But they weren’t as rare as you might think.
“People feel like we don’t have tornadoes in California, but we actually have them here,” said Carol Smith, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard. “Having a tornado anywhere is very rare, but seeing a few of them a year is not uncommon.”
There are an average of one to 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 statewide.
“It’s not like the Midwest; they are very weak, but they are tornadoes,” Smith said. “They have rotation.”
The tornado that struck Montebello this week, damaging at least 17 buildings with wind gusts of up to 110 mph, was the strongest to hit the Los Angeles area since March 1983. according to the weather service.
That 1983 tornado is one of the best known to hit Southern California. The tornado ripped off part of the roof of the Los Angeles Convention Center before moving south on Broadway, ripping up homes, smashing brick storefronts and overturning cars. More than 150 buildings were damaged. Thirty-two people were injured.
“I saw it coming, a big grayish-blackish ball swirling around. It ran over the Broadway Post Office and hit me like a ton of bricks,” a resident told The Times.
When a tornado 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 in the ‘Wizard of Oz’.”
In 1991, a tornado ripped the roofs off several houses in Irvine.
Another in 1993 caused extensive property damage in Lake Forest.
In 2008, two tornado clouds in Riverside County overturned a large truck and derailed a freight train.
In 2014, a tornado touched down in South Los Angeles during a severe storm. The tornado jumped over a span of 10 blocks, 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 ripped off a Montebello building, several others were damaged, and a 1-foot-diameter tree was uprooted entirely.
The National Weather Service confirmed Wednesday afternoon that a tornado that lasted only two to three minutes was responsible for the chaos.
Micaela Vargas said her experience with the Montebello tornado was terrifying. She had been looking outside to see the rain when she noticed that “a little tornado started to form.”
“Then all of a sudden,” he said, “it started getting so big and so gray that you could see everything in the air.”
One person was injured after the incident. In addition, 11 buildings, mostly industrial, were given red tags, meaning they were too dangerous to inhabit, and six more buildings were damaged, according to the weather service. The unusual event also caused an HVAC unit to be ejected from the top of a building, causing skylights to shatter and wooden cross beams to break.
A “weak” tornado also touched down in Carpinteria on Tuesday. It was rated EF0 on a scale of 0 to 5 and had winds of up to 75 miles per hour. The Montebello event, which occurred at 11:14 am on Wednesday, was stronger, in EF1.
One person was injured in the incident at the Sandpiper Village mobile home park in Carpinteria. The tornado “damaged about 25 mobile home units and there was minor damage to trees in the cemetery adjacent to the mobile home park,” the weather service said.
The Carpinteria and Montebello tornadoes formed after recent storms pushed cold air into the atmosphere, causing destabilization. That created storm cells, which then began to spin and eventually became tornadoes.
Although Smith and his colleagues could see powerful thunderstorms looming over the ocean Tuesday night, it’s hard to predict when a tornado is imminent. “You can see if there is an environment that is favorable for tornadoes to happen,” he said, “but to say, ‘Oh, there’s going to be a tornado in this area,’ that’s more difficult.”
Smith said the Carpinteria tornado lasted for two minutes. “They tend to be short-lived,” he said. “They speed up and then they die down.”
Times staff writers Hannah Fry and Hayley Smith contributed to this report.