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Sierra Twisters

Summer is here and the living is easy. July boasts the warmest weather of the year in the Sierra and it's a great time for enjoying all the natural beauty throughout this magnificent region. But mountain weather is capricious in any season, and it's always smart to keep an eye on the sky. This is the season when violent afternoon thunderstorms sometimes chase boats off Lake Tahoe and pelt picnickers with small hail. Hikers, campers, and boaters often venture forth with no thought to changeable weather conditions. Although flash floods and high winds can spell trouble in the mountains, the majority of weather-related casualties during a Sierra summer are caused by lightning strikes or boating mishaps due to wind-driven waves. More than 100 Americans die from lightning strikes every year, a fair number of them are hikers, climbers and boaters. Lightning tends to strike the highest objects around, such as the ridges of mountains. How can you keep yourself safe from nature's worst while enjoying the peaks and lakes of the Sierra? According to the National Weather Service, there are several ways:

  • Get the latest forecast before departing on your outing.
  • If a thunderstorm does approach, get off exposed peaks and ridges as fast as you can. Even running down the side of a hill a short distance may save your life.
  • If caught in a thunderstorm on a mountaintop, crouch down on your boots and put your hands behind your head. Stay low and minimize contact with the ground. Do not lie flat on the ground. Electricity travels easily through rock and soil…and through you if you are lying on the ground.
  • Never seek shelter under a lone tree; it is a potential lightning rod.
  • If boating, get off the water as fast as you can. Boats are usually the tallest objects on a lake. Open, aluminum fishing boats are especially hazardous in thunderstorms. Boaters caught off guard can be quickly capsized or swamped from rough water caused by thunderstorm winds.  

Thunderstorms can also generate deadly tornadoes and waterspouts. A series of spectacular waterspouts were sighted on Lake Tahoe in September 1998. Many Westerners have the erroneous notion that tornadoes are uncommon in California and Nevada. In fact, portions of the southern Los Angeles Basin and areas in California's Central Valley (including "tornado alley" in the corridor between Chico and Oroville) have tornado frequencies that equal or rival those in the Great Plains. Tornadoes occur much less frequently in Nevada and the eastern Sierra; the Silver State ranks 44th out of all 50 states with only one touchdown incident recorded in an average year. (Texas ranks first with an average of 123 confirmed tornadoes every year.) Between 1947 and 1973 in Nevada and the Sierra, 13 confirmed touchdowns were recorded with 33 confirmed funnel clouds (potential tornadoes not making contact with the ground). Towering cumulonimbus clouds that form due to vertical instability in the atmosphere spawn twisters and waterspouts. The tornado season here in the West corresponds with the United States as a whole. Tornado frequency increases during the thunderstorm season from April to October, but they are most numerous in May, June and July.

Tornadoes in Nevada are rather weak comp

Mrs. Leavy rode the mattress like a "flying carpet," sailing over one house and landing in a heap in the desert, stunned but unhurt.

ared to those that annually ravage the Great Plains, but as with other weather phenomenon in our region, they sometimes invade with surprising strength. The weather in July 1931 was sizzling hot. The West was caught in the grip of a severe drought and it seemed that the scorching sun was trying to finish off the ranchers and farmers. The average temperature that month was nearly 80 degrees, six degrees above normal and the warmest in Nevada's recorded history. Day after day Reno baked as high temperatures exceeded 100 degrees.

During the last week of the month, thunderstorms began popping up throughout the region. In some areas, the volatile atmosphere brewed up more than nourishing rain showers. On July 24th, a potent thunderstorm near Las Vegas spawned what witnesses described as a tornado. At 5 p.m. motorists descending a pass in the vicinity watched in horror as a spinning black cloud bounced and zigzagged its way toward the little community of Midway City. Earnest Bell, his wife and 3-year-old son were visiting the Leavy family. Few had the money to stay at a hotel during the depression so the Bell's pitched their tent right next to the Leavy's small wooden cabin. Initially they had no concern about severe weather, but as the ominous storm cloud bore down on them, the tent began to shake violently and the Bell family prudently fled to the relative safety of the Leavy's cabin.

Seconds later the tornado scored a direct hit on the cabin. The violent wind ripped the cabin from its foundation and sent the whole house tumbling, along with its helpless occupants. Mrs. Leavy was sitting on the bed when the twister struck. The tornado's vacuum pulled her and the mattress right out the window and flung them both high into the air. Miraculously, Mrs. Leavy rode the mattress like a "flying carpet," sailing over one house and landing in a heap in the desert, stunned but unhurt. The capricious twister had sucked her diamond wedding ring and wristwatch off, but spared her life.

Meanwhile the Bell family was being tossed from wall to wall as the cabin rolled across the desert sage. Finally the cabin, still intact, came to a stop. Badly shaken, Mrs. Bell and her son started to get up when Mr. Bell shouted, "Lay back down there!" At that very instant a powerful wind gust tore apart the whole house except for the wall they were crouched against. All three were injured, but the Bell family had survived a Nevada twister. In all, nearly a dozen homes were destroyed and seven people hospitalized. Amazingly, no one was killed. After the wind abated, Ernest Bell limped back to see if he could salvage any of their possessions amidst all the wreckage. His eyes opened wide when he reached the spot. Their flimsy canvas tent was still standing there, completely intact and untouched by the raging tornado!

Mark McLaughlin's books Sierra Stories: True Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 are available at Truckee Books and The Bookshelf at Hooligan Rocks in Truckee; The Tahoe Store and Village Cards & Books in Incline Village, and Bookshelf at the Boatworks, The Store, and the Gatekeeper's Cabin in Tahoe City.


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