PORT ORCHARD — The Dec. 18 EF-2 tornado that dropped into East Port Orchard from a stray squall line of storms buffeting the Kitsap Peninsula shocked residents with a cameo appearance of about two minutes.
It was as rare as it was destructive.
While the surprise twister downed power lines, lifted roof sections of commercial buildings and totaled a vehicle driving on Southeast Bethel Road just before 2 p.m., the swirling cloud of wind packing winds up to 130 miles per hour, saved its peak fury for a neighborhood of residential homes on Southeast Serenade Way, Harris Court and Tiburon Court.
Those homes, tucked behind the Walmart on Bethel and surrounded by tall fir trees, were severely damaged by the damaging winds. One of the homes on Serenity Court also had its entire roof lifted from its ceiling joists. A bystander told the Independent that sections of that red-colored home were found six blocks away.
Inexplicably, no one was killed in the path of the 300-yard-wide tornado, nor were there any significant injuries. Some individuals reportedly had to deal with cuts, bumps and bruises from the falling debris — a woman was bloodied inside her spinning Toyota sedan as the tornado crossed Bethel — but South Kitsap Fire and Rescue assistant chief Jeff Faucett said Dec. 19 that no one was taken by stretcher to a hospital for treatment.
As the broken pieces of homes, fences and businesses were cleaned up and some semblance of normality returned to the East Port Orchard area visited by the tornado, residents are just beginning to comprehend how lucky they are that the tragedy wasn’t greater.
“I think we all know that we were fortunate that the tornado happened when it did,” Port Orchard Mayor Rob Putaansuu said. “A little later in the day and we would have had increased traffic on Bethel or children walking home from school.
Putaansuu said that if the tornado had touched down farther to the north or south — even just a block or two — it would have hit busy shopping areas. As it was, according to Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Deputy Scott Wilson, approximately 50 buildings were damaged in the commercial section of Bethel. About 250 residential structures were judged to have been damaged by a team of officials who evaluated the site later in the week.
Nick Bond, the city’s community development director, said construction regulations for Port Orchard call for a wind load limit of 85 miles per hour, well below the top winds of the tornado. In any event, tornadic events are a challenge for most wooden structures anywhere.
“While the devastation is dramatic and is affecting many families this holiday season,” Putaansuu said, “it could have been far worse.”
The chilling aspect of Port Orchard’s catastrophic near-miss from a direct hit is that the tornado appeared practically from nowhere. Unlike other areas of the nation, particularly in “Tornado Alley” sections of the midwest and south that are more familiar territory for severe thunderstorm and tornadic activity, the Puget Sound region doesn’t have a network of sirens that alert communities of incoming tornadoes.
But even if the area had been equipped with sirens, there wouldn’t have been time to flip the switch. Unlike the mega-twisters that frequent other parts of the country, this tornado was only on the ground for a couple of minutes, at the most, during its 1.4-mile journey on the ground.
So, combined with the suddenness of the tornado and the unfamiliarity of this kind of weather pattern, a later appearance could have meant many dozens of people outside walking about the area and at the mercy of punishing winds.
Kirby Cook, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, told the Seattle Times that the tornado was unexpected — and was certainly not in the forecast on Dec. 18. While thunderstorms were forecasted, the weather system wasn’t expected to be severe. Cook said the squall that rolled through was part of a cold front that is familiar to the Pacific Northwest in the winter.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, just 120 “tornado events” were recorded in this state from 1950 to 2016. Almost all of those events were registered in the EF-0 to EF-1 range — with winds 3-second wind gusts of between 65 and 110 miles per hour. The Port Orchard twister, believed to have produced winds of 115-130 miles per hour, was rated as a “strong” EF-2 tornado.