Tornadoes in Southern California? Not as rare as many might think

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

But they weren’t as rare as one might think.

“People are under the impression that we don’t have tornadoes in California, but we have them here,” said Carol Smith, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard. “Having a tornado in one location is very rare, but seeing a few a year is not uncommon.”

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 statewide.

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

The tornado that hit 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.

Notable Twisters

This 1983 twister 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 roaring south along Broadway, tearing homes, smashing brick storefronts and flipping cars. More than 150 buildings were damaged. Thirty-two people were injured.

Damage from the 1983 tornado.

(Los Angeles Public Library)

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

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

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

Another in 1993 caused extensive property damage in Lake Forest.

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

In 2014, a tornado touched down in South Los Angeles during a severe thunderstorm. The tornado jumped over a 10-block expanse, 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 in the air. The roof of a building in Montebello was torn off, several others were damaged and a tree 1 foot in diameter was completely uprooted.

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 was looking outside to see the rain when she noticed “a small tornado started to form”.

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

One person was confirmed injured after the event. In addition, 11 mostly industrial buildings were marked red, meaning they were too dangerous to inhabit, and six other buildings were damaged, according to the weather service. The unusual event also sent an HVAC unit down from the top of a building and caused skylights to break and wooden sleepers 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 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 approximately 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 high into the atmosphere, causing it to destabilize. This created storm cells, which then began to spin and eventually became tornadoes.

Although Smith and his colleagues could see powerful thunderstorms brewing over the ocean Tuesday night, it’s hard to predict when a tornado is imminent. “You can see if there’s a tornado environment out there,” she said, “but saying, ‘Oh, there’s going to be a tornado in this area,’ it’s harder.”

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

Times staff writers Hannah Fry and Hayley Smith contributed to this report.

Los Angeles Times

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