Rare Tornado Strikes Coastal Campground
On March 18, an incident being described as a "tornado touchdown" by a witness and former meteorologist moved from the waters off the Pacific coast of Half Moon Bay, Calif., to the Francis Beach ranger station, picnic area, campground and the Coastside Trail, the Burlingame Patch reported.
Witnesses estimated that it took place approximately between 10 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. and reported seeing it lift up and knock over a fence, down a tree and cause at least one wooden picnic table to "cartwheel" across the grassy area of the state park located at the foot of Kelly Avenue.
El Granada resident Joe Toschik, an Air Force meteorologist for 21 years, saw the incident take place while sitting in his car parked in the beach's parking lot adjacent to the picnic area and campground. He estimated that it took place "around 10 a.m., give or take five or 10 minutes or so."
"There was heavy rain cutting down visibility, but when the rain let up you could see a light-colored cloud swirling ashore, and of course once it hit land it picked up dirt and got darker," said Toschik. "My car was rocking too," he said.
"Paul Keel (the California State Parks Superintendent for the San Mateo County Coast) said that it was moving from south to north in the direction of the winds, and it took about 15 seconds to move from off the coast to the tree," said Tim Fellars, a California State Parks ranger for San Mateo County, who relayed to Half Moon Bay Patch what Keel told him he saw from the windows of the ranger station at Francis Beach which overlook the coast. Keel was not available for an interview at the time of publication.
"It was a water spout off the ocean — a small tornado over the ocean which revolves over the center of its mass and picks up water instead of dirt," Fellars said, who also called it a "funnel cloud of water."
According to the National Weather Service (NWS), a funnel cloud becomes a tornado once it hits the ground.
"At around 10 a.m., our doppler weather radar indicated a tornadic signature over the Half Moon Bay San Mateo area," said Chris Stumpf, NWS meteorologist for the San Francisco/Monterey Bay region. "Based on that warning, we issued a tornado warning for that location," he said.
The tornado warning was issued for San Mateo County at 11 a.m., then was expired half an hour later. Stumpf said that he was not aware of a funnel cloud or tornado that touched down on Half Moon Bay during the period between 10 and 10:30 a.m. this morning.
Joanne Kerbavaz, State Parks Senior Environmental Scientist, also witnessed the event from her office based at the ranger station at Francis Beach.
"I heard a loud gust of wind and looked at the window about 10:30 a.m. this morning," she said. "The building shook, then I looked out the window and saw a piece of the fence that was picked up before it fell over."
"I saw a cloud of reddish brown dirt moving inland from the ocean that picked up around the same time as a gust of wind," Kerbavaz said. "It was very dramatic," she said.
Kerbavaz said she then went over to another window to continue watching. "I saw two of the picnic tables were moved — at least one cartwheeled," she said. "That was the most spectacular thing I saw."
Fellars said that though the picnic tables are normally secured to the ground by being looped through a cable through its legs on either side, it was possible that some were not secured on both sides, due to the need to move around the tables during the effort to salvage and remove the Phyllis J crabbing boat that overturned at Francis Beach in January.
The downed tree fell on its side, blocking the Coastside Trail and part of the horseback riding trail adjacent to the trail reserved for pedestrians, runners, and bicyclists. The section of the trail blocked by the downed tree has been marked off with yellow caution tape.
"What was fun was that one by one people walked in who had seen it and were making exclamations," Kerbavaz said.
Francis Beach is part of Half Moon Bay State Beach and is owned and operated by the state of California.
Half Moon Bay city officials and police did not report any weather-related damage on Friday as of 6:00 p.m.
No other damage was reported in San Mateo County on Friday.