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Climate and Environment

Yes, A Pair Of Tornadoes Touched Down And Damaged Buildings In LA And Santa Barbara Counties

The damaged roof of an industrial building.
An aerial view of roof damage after a rare tornado touched down in Montebello Wednesday.
(Courtesy National Weather Service
Getty Images)
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Both Ventura and L.A. counties have been struck by tornadoes over the past day, according to the National Weather Service in Oxnard.

Videos surfaced online showing extreme, swirling winds damaging mobile homes in Carpinteria on Tuesday afternoon, and commercial businesses in Montebello on Wednesday morning.

Both have since been confirmed as tornadoes after being investigated by a team from the weather service, which is in charge of classifying the weather events.

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Damage in Montebello

The damage caused by the tornado in Montebello spread across about half an acre and lasted for about 3 minutes.

Winds of 110 mph damaged 17 structures, 11 of which sustained significant damage. A power pole snapped and its transformer was ripped off according to a report from the weather service. Also, a 40-foot-tall pine tree was knocked over and one person was sent to the hospital with minor injuries, according to Michael Chee, public information officer with the city of Montebello.

Videos show debris flying through the air as a large funnel forms in the sky over an industrial part of the city.

It was very intense. It was very brief.
— Michael Chee, Montebello PIO

"It was very intense. It was very brief. Also fairly destructive in the area that hit," said Michael Chee, public information officer with the city of Montebello.

Now, the city is doing cleanup and damage control, and assessing whether the buildings are structurally sound.

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Is this unusual?

We tend to get a couple of weak funnel clouds charging from the ocean onto land, each year. But they don't usually cause notable damage.

On Tuesday, forecasters had warned that landspouts — smaller, short-lived tornadoes — were possible across much of Southern California.

The last time the National Weather Service in Oxnard rated a tornado was back in 2016.

Why couldn't we just say they're tornadoes?

Throughout the day Wednesday, the weather service was hesitant to say definitively that what our eyes saw on those videos were tornadoes. They wanted to investigate on the ground first for tell-tale signs that a funnel cloud was at work.

A graphic displaying the difference between landspouts, waterspouts, and supercell tornadoes.
(National Weather Service)

Before the investigations, Ryan Kittell, a meteorologist with the NWS told us:

"Everything I've seen sure looks like a tornado, but we have to be super careful before we can confirm it."

But if a video shows what looks a tornado, how could it not be one?

Well, other weather phenomenon can cause things to swirl in the air.

For instance, microbursts send columns of cold air straight towards the ground, shooting the air in all sorts of directions once it comes into contact.

"Kind of like if you put a hose, you face it so it hits the ground and spreads in all directions real fast," said Kittel. "And sometimes you get little swirls that come up. It's kind of swirly, but it's not rotating. That could happen, especially when you look at a real narrow view on a video."

When investigators show up at a site, they look for signs that a powerful, rotating column of wind was there.

That might include a whole bunch of trees knocked over in a consistent, circular pattern on a large scale — for example, trees all bending towards the north in one spot, and towards the south in another.

"Another indicator would be if you have very localized damage," said Kittell. "Like you have nothing, absolutely nothing, not even a trash can really knocked over across the street. Whereas on the other side of the street you can have roof shingles knocked over, trees knocked over, things of that nature."

And they also looked to see if the damage follows a consistent line along a path when mapped out.

In the end, the verdict: Two tornadoes touched down this week in Southern California.

Read more about today's weather: Tuesday Night Brought An Extremely Rare Tornado Warning. Intense Storms Continue Today

What do you want to know about fires, earthquakes, climate change or any science-related topics?
Jacob Margolis helps Southern Californians understand the science shaping our imperfect paradise and gets us prepared for what’s next.

Corrected March 22, 2023 at 6:14 PM PDT
An earlier version of this story located Carpinteria in the wrong county. It's in Santa Barbara County. LAist regrets the error.
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