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Tornado or straight line winds? Storm causes major damage at Oceano Airport

oceano airport damage.jpg
Posted at 6:15 PM, Feb 28, 2023

Last Friday's storm caused significant damage at the Oceano Airport, leaving downed trees and destroyed hangars that airport officials are still cleaning up.

Some were left wondering if a tornado was responsible for the damage.

At about 10 a.m. on Friday, the National Weather Service (NWS) issued a brief tornado warning for the Casmalia area.

"So it kinda clipped the northernmost portion of [Vandenberg Space Force] Base and then moved west of Orcutt before it kinda fell apart," explained Eric Boldt, Warning Coordination Meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Oxnard.

But earlier in the day, the Oceano Airport also experienced strong storm conditions.

An airport staff member called in the damage around 5 a.m.

"He said, 'I think we had a tornado or something hit the airport.' When I first saw it I thought just that," said Craig Piper, San Luis Obispo County Airports Deputy Director. "It’s a very isolated small part that only affected a couple areas but it affected them substantially and then there’s other places that are untouched."

Trees were ripped out of the ground, an airplane hangar's door was torn from its tracks, and a building was left in pieces.

When there is suspicion of tornado-like damage, the NWS will usually send out a team to investigate, looking for signs to differentiate between straight line winds and tornado winds.

"The difference is trees would fall over in one direction," Boldt explained. "If it was a tornado, we’d see the trees twisted in different directions. In the Oceano area, there was more of the straight line winds associated with the storms that came on shore early in the morning before the tornado warning was issued."

In this case, the Oceano Airport did not report the damage to the NWS, so a team has not investigated the event.

The airport's first move was to enter clean-up mode.

"The one hangar blew into our on-airport campground so we had the contractor come in and clean all that up and get these doors down. The doors behind me, they were strewn in different directions so we had a crane in and they were able to get those down," Piper said.

While one of the damaged buildings will need to be bulldozed, Piper said a plane parked nearby appeared to be untouched.

Since the National Weather Service has not sent a team to Oceano to investigate, they could not give a definitive answer as to what caused the damage but they did say that because of the timing of the event and what correlated with the radar, it likely was straight line winds.