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SLO County, Calif., Hit by Possible Rare Tornado

The rare weather event left toppled trees and power lines, mangled awnings and pulverized concrete in its wake, even shutting off power to thousands, as debris littered much of Grover Beach.

Diablo Canyon Power Plant
Diablo Canyon Power Plant in San Luis Obispo County, Calif.
Flickr/Mike Baird
(TNS) - A freak storm pummeled San Luis Obispo County on Wednesday afternoon — including a possible tornado that ripped up trees and asphalt as it whipped a destructive path through part of South County.

The rare weather event left toppled trees and power lines, mangled awnings and pulverized concrete in its wake, even shutting off power to thousands, as debris littered much of Grover Beach.

Photos and videos shared online show lines of trees torn out of the ground and flattened across Grand and Ramona avenues, with large chunks of buckled asphalt littering the ground.

At least one traffic light dangled precariously from its pole on Grand Avenue.

A tree fell at Majestic Tile and Flooring at around 4 p.m. but was cleaned up for free by Mike Leon, who was in town at the time with his tree care tools.

Owner Brittany Prince said she didn't hear the tree fall outside her home because the wind was so loud.

"We looked outside and saw things blowing down the street," she said. "I came out to go close the rollup door, and things were flying, so I just left it. I went back inside to make sure we were safe, and then I looked out and saw the tree was down."

Leon said he saw the tree fall during what looked like the formation of a tornado. So he decided to help.

"I saw that there was a need for help, and that's what I did," Leon said.

The National Weather Service said Wednesday evening it had received reports of a possible tornado in the Pismo Beach and Grover Beach areas, but noted as of 6 p.m. those reports were still unconfirmed.

The agency plans to conduct a damage survey on Thursday, it said, to determine if the impacts in the area were due to a tornado or severe straight-line winds.

It also advised residents in the area to seek shelter, as the region was likely still in for a lashing as severe thunderstorms spread across the Central Coast into Wednesday night.

Sudden tornado, severe weather warnings issued for SLO County

The National Weather Service issued multiple weather warnings for San Luis Obispo County on Wednesday afternoon — most notable of which being a rare tornado warning for the North Coast.

"At 3:36 p.m., severe thunderstorms capable of producing a tornado were located along a line extending from Morro Bay to 14 miles southwest of San Luis Obispo, moving east at 55 mph," the Weather Service said in its warning.

Vulnerable areas included Morro Bay, Diablo Canyon, Los Osos, Baywood, Cambria and Cayucos, the agency said.

The NWS urged people to find shelter immediately, and warned that flying debris could destroy mobile homes and damage trees, roofs, windows and vehicles.

The warning was set to expire at 4:15 p.m. — but before it could, the weather agency also issued a special weather alert for a different part of San Luis Obispo County, warning of the potential for 55 mph winds and pea-sized hail in Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Nipomo.

Meanwhile off the coast, winds greater than 50 knots were expected to develop, with the potential for steep waves and waterspouts, the agency said.

Meteorologist John Lindsey, who was watching the weather event closely, said a "classic signature of tornadic activity" developed off the coast of Los Osos and Morro Bay at around 3:30 p.m., and another developed off the coast of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant at around 4 p.m.

The comma-like depictions on Doppler radar indicated a possible tornado, Lindsey told The Tribune, but whether they touched down was hard to tell.

Video taken from Lindsey's porch in Los Osos showed a possible funnel cloud, but Lindsey said he didn't see it develop further to touch the ground — the true test of a tornado.

San Luis Coastal Unified School District notified parents its coastal sites were ordered to shelter in place during the warning; the district also halted transportation, according to the parent alert.

By 4 p.m. the warning was lifted.

"All students and staff are safe," the district said in the notice. "This is an exceedingly rare event for San Luis Obispo County and we want to commend the quick action of our school site teams and our buildings, grounds and transportation department."

Though San Luis Coastal Unified School District's schools emerged unscathed, it was immediately clear the same couldn't be said for the rest of the county — especially Grover Beach.

Soon after the warning expired, an onslaught of calls regarding downed trees, broken power lines and other storm-related incidents were made to emergency dispatch.

One notable call was a report of two people who were trapped inside a Grover Beach building near the intersection of Grand Avenue and North 11th Street after a wall collapsed.

Emergency scanner traffic indicated the collapsed portion was a windbreak and not a load-bearing wall. Photos from the scene showed a balcony wall collapsed on top of the door to what looks like an apartment unit.

As of 4:20 p.m., emergency responders were at the scene, assessing the situation to determine how the trapped people would be extricated.

Further details were not immediately available Wednesday night.

Elsewhere, the Arroyo Grande Police Department and Cal Fire asked residents in the area of Tally Ho Road and Canyon Way to shelter in place due to downed power lines.

The shelter-in-place order was still in effect as of 7:30 p.m.

Nearby, the right lane of southbound Highway 101 was closed at Halcyon Road due to downed trees, according to Caltrans.

It was unclear when the road would open, the agency said around 6 p.m. Drivers were advised to plan for delays.

San Luis Obispo didn't escape the storm without any damage either.

Los Osos Valley Road at Foothill Boulevard was closed Wednesday evening after power poles fell blocking part of the road, according to California Highway Patrol's traffic incident report page.

Meanwhile, thousands of PG&E customers lost power Wednesday afternoon when the furious storm cell barreled through the area.

At the peak of the outage, as many as 7,400 customers were without power, but that number had dropped to 2,300 by 5:30 p.m., according to PG&E spokesperson Carina Corral.

Among the hard-hit areas were Grover Beach, where powerful winds knocked down several large trees, along with Oceano and San Luis Obispo.

PG&E crews were also responding to Los Osos Valley Road near Turri Road, where five power poles were knocked down, Corral said.

Downed wires in Grover Beach cut power to 1,600 customers. Corral said a few hundred were without power in San Luis Obispo.

In Avila Beach, around 5,170 customers briefly lost power at 3:23 p.m., according to PG&E's outage map, but it was restored by 4:50 p.m.

"All of these outages occurred within 30 minutes of each other, at the height of today's strong weather that moved through the area," Corral told The Tribune. "Our local PG&E crews are moving quickly and safely to restore power."

Crews were still being dispatched as of early Wednesday evening, and Corral said it was too early to estimate when power would be fully restored.

This story was originally published February 7, 2024, 3:46 PM.

©2024 The Tribune (San Luis Obispo, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.