The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Damaging tornado strikes just east of Los Angeles

It was the strongest tornado to hit the Los Angeles metro area since March 1983

Video posted on social media on March 22 shows swirling debris in Montebello, Calif. (Video: @njtehcherchian/Weather Traker/TMX)
3 min

Hazardous weather of practically every form has walloped California this week. On Wednesday, the same storm system that blasted the San Francisco and Monterey bay areas with damaging winds Tuesday spun up a tornado in Montebello, Calif. — just eight miles east of downtown Los Angeles.

Videos of the twister — which hit about 11:15 a.m. Pacific time — revealed a cone-shape funnel lofting large amounts of debris into the sky and shearing off parts of roofs.

Incredible images of a hurricane-like storm that walloped California

The National Weather Service reported 17 structures were damage, 11 of them significantly, mostly in an industrial warehouse district. One person was injured.

“Almost a total roof collapse occurred in one building,” the Weather Service wrote in a post storm survey. “An HVAC unit was ejected from the top of the building. Skylights were broken. Wood cross beams collapsed. A power pole was snapped with a transformer blown off. Cars were damaged with windows destroyed."

The Montebello tornado was rated an EF1, on the 0-to-5 scale for intensity, the Weather Service reported. It had peak winds of 110 mph along a path of 0.42 miles. The storm’s maximum width was 50 yards and remained on the ground for 2 to 3 minutes.

The Weather Service wrote it was the strongest tornado to impact the Los Angeles metro area since March 1983.

“It felt like a bomb or something exploded, but then you see everything flying around, all the debris. It just felt weird, you’re not used to it,” an eyewitness named Miguel told local affiliate FOX11.

Montebello is 20 miles from the waters of the chilly Pacific Ocean, where rainfall tends to come with relatively cool air that is not normally conducive to thunderstorms.

In this case, the hurricane-like storm that slammed the San Francisco Bay Area on Tuesday drifted south to near Monterey Bay instead of heading inland. It drew moist air over Southern California that helped feed the pop-up thunderstorms in the region Wednesday.

All the while, there was enough sunshine early in the day around Los Angeles to heat the ground while cold air entered the area at high altitudes.

The resulting temperature contrast between the ground and high elevations created enough atmospheric instability to build the storm that spawned the Montebello tornado.

The tornado that hit Montebello was the second to hit Southern California in two days.

On Tuesday, video showed that a weak twister spun up in Carpinteria, a small seaside city in Santa Barbara County. That tornado damaged 25 mobile homes.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Weather Service issued a bulletin stating that the Carpinteria tornado injured one person and was rated an EF0 while producing winds up to 75 mph.

While California isn’t Kansas, tornadoes occur across the state almost every year. They’re most common in winter and spring, when powerful storms like this week’s come ashore.

Statewide, about seven tornadoes strike each year; as recently as 2019, there were 14.

March is the most common month for California tornadoes, with 18 percent of the annual activity, followed by February with 14 percent and January and April with about 12 percent each.

Since 1950, just 45 tornadoes have touched down in Los Angeles County.