As a native Midwesterner, it's sort of second nature to scoff when I hear about a California tornado.
Back on the prairies and Plains, a tornado is an awesome and often deadly spectacle, capable of erasing entire neighborhoods in a matter of seconds. If you live there long enough, you'll have a direct encounter with one, and it's an experience you won't forget.
In California? Well, you hear about anemic little funnel clouds that make it to the ground sometimes. Instead of havoc, they wreak annoyance -- blowing shingles off roofs, knocking over a few trees, maybe blowing down a fence of two.
You Californians and your "tornadoes" -- what a joke.
But maybe I'll amend my opinion a little after seeing video of the little twister that swept through Denair, southeast of Modesto in Stanislaus County. The scene is only 7 seconds long, but it depicts a little bit of hell breaking loose -- lots of debris in the air and someone frantically entreating their dad to close the front door.
“What I thought was a bunch of birds was a bunch of debris” being carried by the funnel cloud, said Sabina Woodard, who lives with her husband at the east end of Zeering and saw the dark mass heading their way. “It looked like a remake of that Alfred Hitchcock movie ‘The Birds.’ ”
When the tornado struck, “my husband and I thought we were going, that this was the end of the world for us,” Woodard said. Zane Woodard has Parkinson’s disease, so the couple took refuge under the hospital bed in their home, which was heavy enough to prove stable as furnishings including their television set flew about.
The couple have lived in the home 31 years, and the house itself was built in the 1930s. The Woodards didn’t know where they’d be staying Sunday night, as their home was without electricity, water or gas. Zane Woodard said they were just happy to be alive.
And looking down at her Scottish terrier, a Toto-ish little guy named Caden Mackenna, Sabina Woodard made reference to another classic movie. “I guess I’ll have to get some ruby red slippers.”
Several other homes and a nearby church were also damaged in the whirlwind. Meteorologists planned to survey the damage and rate the strength of the twister on Monday. Two out of three California tornadoes are rated F0, the lowest ranking on the Fujita scale used in assessing a twister's strength.
The Modesto Bee said the twister swept along nearly a mile of Zeering Road, toppling trees and fences, breaking windows and ripping off part of a church roof.
There were no reports of injuries.
The tornado was spawned by a storm system that raced through Northern and Central California on Sunday -- moistening the San Francisco Bay region with rainfall amounts ranging from one-third to half an inch at most locations up to nearly an inch in the Sonoma County mountains. The storm also unleashed thunderstorms and hail in some locations and brought up to a foot of snow to the highest peaks in the Sierra Nevada.
Lindsey Hoshaw of KQED Science contributed to this post, which also includes reporting from The Associated Press.