"We're going to call it a small tornado," said National Weather Service meteorologist Eric Boldt, who relied on radar data, video footage from witnesses and reports of property damage to diagnose the rare weather pattern. "The damage was sporadic. That's typical of a tornado," Boldt added.
About 9:20 a.m., the tornado traveled from at least Vermont and Gage avenues to 57th and Figueroa streets, Boldt said.
The wind tore the roof off a duplex on the 6300 block of Vermont Avenue, damaging five homes and several cars, said Los Angeles Fire Department spokeswoman Katherine Main.
Deborah LaVergne, 56, was preparing turkey sandwiches in the kitchen of the Garr Learning Center in South Los Angeles when she looked out the window. Outside, a black trash can swirled 30 feet in the air.
"The whole building was shaking," LaVergne said. "It sounded like a freight train."
The wind tore off the sign outside the Garr Learning Center, located on Gage and Vermont avenues, said owner Gerae Vernon. The sign spun in the wind and crashed into a window, shattering the glass and scaring the 21 children inside.
"Heavy rain, storm, winds, earthquakes – I'm used to that," Vernon said. "I had never seen anything like this before."
That waterspout was likely in the same band of storm cells as the tornado that hit South L.A., Boldt said. Such waterspouts are more likely in winter storms, Boldt said, but landspouts, or tornadoes, are not out of the question.
"It's not a common thing," Boldt said, "but they can occur."