Los Angeles hit by strongest tornado in three decades: ‘It got very loud’

Violent funnel with gusts reaching up to 110mph ripped through roofs and scattered debris high into the air

The National Weather Service (NWS) has confirmed that the violent funnel of swirling winds that ripped through roofs and scattered debris high into the air near downtown Los Angeles on Wednesday was indeed a tornado – and the strongest one the area has seen in more than three decades.

It was the second tornado to touch down in southern California this week in an area unaccustomed to facing that particular kind of extreme weather. “It’s definitely not something that’s common for the region,” said NWS meteorologist Rose Schoenfeld, noting that the last time the weather service’s LA office sent out tornado assessment teams was in 2016.

Michael Turner could hear the winds get stronger from inside his office at the 33,000-sq-ft (3,065-sq-meter) warehouse he owns just south of downtown Montebello. When the lights started flickering, he went outside to find his employees gazing up at the ominous sky. He brought everyone inside.

Damage to a building is seen on Wednesday in Montebello, California, after a tornado.
Damage to a building is seen on Wednesday in Montebello, California, after a tornado. Photograph: Ringo HW Chiu/AP

“It got very loud. Things were flying all over the place,” Turner said. “The whole factory became a big dustbowl for a minute. Then when the dust settled, the place was just a mess.”

With gusts reaching up to 110mph, LA’s tornado ranked as an EF1 – second from the bottom on the Enhanced Fujita scale, a system with six tiers used to evaluate intensity and size – but was still strong enough to rip a large, healthy pine tree up from its roots, snap a power pole and launch an HVAC unit from the top of a building. The weather service also sent assessment teams to the Santa Barbara county city of Carpinteria, where it confirmed that a tornado hit a mobile home park on Tuesday, with gusts up to 75mph (120km/h) that damaged about 25 residences. That tornado was measured at a relatively weak EF0, with winds of 65mph to 80mph (105km/h to 129km/h).

The wild weather came amid a strong late-season Pacific storm that brought damaging winds and more rain and snow to saturated California. Five deaths have been linked to the storms that raked the San Francisco Bay Area with powerful gusts and downpours.

While rare, tornadoes in California aren’t unheard of. The Golden State is hit by 11 tornadoes on average each year. They tend to be on the smaller side as far as tornadoes go, and typically churn through the state’s Central Valley in the spring and fall. Before this occurrence, there have been 44 tornadoes in LA county over the last 70 years according to the Los Angeles Almanac, most classified at the lower end of the scale.

A toppled tree after a tornado touched down and ripped up building roofs in a Los Angeles suburb on Wednesday in Montebello, California.
A toppled tree after a tornado touched down and ripped up building roofs in a Los Angeles suburb on Wednesday in Montebello, California. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

In Los Angeles, one person was reportedly injured while the industrial area affected began to clean up the mess left by the tornado that left rubble strewn across the length of a city block. In just three minutes, the twister collapsed roofs, smashed through skylights, punched through wood crossbeams and blew a transformer off power poles.

Turner said his polyester fiber business, Turner Fiberfill, could be closed for months. Nobody was hurt, but the gas line was severed, fire sprinklers broke, all the skylights shattered and a 5,000-sq-ft (465-sq-meter) section of roof was “just gone”, he said.

“Earthquakes – we’re used to that,” he said, adding, “I’ve been in California since 1965. Never seen anything like this.”


Gabrielle Canon and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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