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One person called it a “Dust Devil on steroids.”
Emergency officials called it a “major wind event.”
Whatever it was, everybody was breathing a huge sigh of relief after part of the roof of Barranca Elementary School gym was blown away about 1:30 p.m. Wednesday.
The wind event scattered insulation and other roofing material throughout the school grounds, including the school parking lot.
No one was injured during the incident, which witnesses said lasted about two minutes. Most students had already departed the campus since Wednesday was a half day at the school.
LAFD Battalion Chief Paul Grano said at the scene that there were three minor medical needs.
"Some of the victims got dust in their eyes," Grano said.
Barranca Mesa Elementary School Principal Pam Miller recounted the brief but violent windstorm.
“It was like a mini tornado,” Miller said. “We were in the gym having lunch when we heard something like a train going by. You could hear the roof peeling off.”
It was then that Miller and others went in to gather the other children playing outside and bring them indoors but by that time the wind had stopped.
According to witnesses, the wind gust originated in the back of the school on the field, moved forward over the gym roof and dissipated somewhere across the street from the school. Debris from the wind was scattered all over the parking lot, some of the parking lot lamps were damaged and some cars had shattered windows.
Miller’s vehicle was among those damaged in the wind event.
Art teacher Pat Walls said, "We were real lucky that nobody got killed."
Only teachers and students from the YMCA After School program were at the school when the winds hit.
Fourth grader teacher Andrea Determan, who is scheduled to retire at the end of this school year, was in the gym when the winds hit.
"We were in the gym and it sounded like 100 people were jumping on top of the roof," Determan said. “It progressively got closer and closer. We got out of the gym and we were wondering where all the (YMCA) kids were.
Anna Fernandez, who works for the YMCA, was outside on the playground with the kids when she looked to the back of the school.
"It started in the field in the back," Fernandez said. "It just got really windy and I saw this dust cloud go over the school and I saw the roof peel back. It got really bad so we got everyone inside as quick as we could.”
The YMCA staff drew praise all the way around."
Barranca teacher Nicole Magrane said, “I really appreciate the efforts of the YMCA staff. They herded all the kids and kept them safe. They did a fabulous job.”
“We consider all our childcare staff everyday heroes, however our Barranca after school staff, Anna Fernandez, Dwight Williams, Alexander Valdez were praised by school staff, first responders and parents praised them as heroes for keeping the kids safe,” YMCA CEO Linda Daly said.
“They responded in a quick yet calm manner to shelter the kids away from harm’s way. They were outside and saw a ‘dust devil on steroids’ and moved the kids into a hallway. Thank goodness everyone is safe.”
LAFD crews along with Fire Marshal Brian Nickerson inspected the inside of the school after the wind event and later escorted teachers back to their classrooms to gather their belongings.
DPU crews also were on hand to inspect electrical and gas lines as well as fix one light standard that was damaged in the parking lot. As a precaution, crews turned off all the utilities at the school.
Both Miller and Superintendent of Schools Dr. Gene Schmidt said school at Barranca Mesa will be out for the rest of the week. The school year is scheduled to end next Friday.
Schmidt said Thursday that he is hopeful the school will reopen Tuesday.
“The critical factors are cleanup, testing the lines and we hope to get the kids back in school by Tuesday. This is a stay tuned moment. This is what we are thinking for right now but it could change,” he said.
Kerry Jones of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Albuquerque, meanwhile, provided this assessment of what happened.
“All indications point toward a Giant Dust Devil, and the damage is consistent with wind speeds somewhere just north of 55-60 mph.
“Atmospheric conditions that are favorable for dust devil formation include very hot, dry and unstable air immediately at the ground. Often times, dust devils occur under a perfectly clear sky but over areas of land that heat up very intensely and early. (e.g. open, bare fields on a mesa).
“We have had cases where a dust devil will "marry up" with a growing cumulus cloud, for example, or a developing thunderstorm and the dust devil transitions to what we call a landspout tornado. A landspout tornado is an "ascending" tornado that is completely different from a tornado that descends from a rotating updraft that we refer to as a mesocyclone.”