MILLINOCKET, Maine — Arielle Smith knew that the National Weather Service had issued a tornado warning, but she still felt jolted when she saw the swirling gray clouds dancing near Katahdin Avenue on Sunday.
“It didn’t look like it had a long-enough funnel to touch down,” the 21-year-old Husson University student said Monday. “I was like, oh wow. To me it was more like a shock to see that kind of cloud in the sky. We had the warning so it wasn’t that big a shock, but still.”
At least one tornado touched down in Maine, the National Weather Service confirmed Monday, although it wasn’t the funnel that Smith saw. A tornado left a path about 50 yards wide and 80 yards long about two miles north of Eagle Lake in Aroostook County on Sunday, said Corey Bogel, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Caribou. There were no reports of damage to structures.
The Smiths were among several people whose possible tornado sightings the National Weather Service investigated on Monday.
The Eagle Lake tornado touched down briefly at about 3:05 p.m. and had winds that sped at about 70 mph — very slow by tornado standards. Apparently the microburst of rainfall and lightning that immediately followed it did more damage than the tornado, Bogel said.
Warning Coordination Meterologist Noel Runyan met Aroostook County emergency management officials and toured areas on Monday where funnels had reportedly touched down, said Joseph Hewitt, a lead forecaster with the National Weather Service office in Caribou.
“Most of the damage looks to be [from] straight-line wind,” Hewitt said Monday. “What typically can happen here is you will get a rotation spin out of these storms. They can briefly touch down and go back up. I think Maine’s topography prevents a lot of it.”
The weather service issued tornado warnings on Sunday starting at 3:30 p.m. for southern Somerset County and eastern Franklin County, northern Aroostook County, and northern and central Penobscot County. The warnings lasted about 15 minutes each.
The warning areas included Eagle Lake, Guerette and St. Agatha in Aroostook County; Bingham in Somerset County; Kingfield in Franklin County, and around Baxter State Park in Penobscot County.
Damage occurred in those areas, typically felled trees and downed utility lines, but “we suspect that is straight-line wind damage,” not tornado damage, said John Jensenius, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Gray.
A weather service warning means that a tornado has been spotted or that Doppler radar shows thunderstorm circulation wind patterns that can spawn a tornado.
The Millinocket funnel was the first Arielle Smith saw in person, but the early childhood education major has learned about them as part of her studies, she said. She and her mother lost sight of it almost immediately as Cindy Smith kept driving.
The Smiths were driving on Katahdin Avenue and Bates Street returning home from food shopping at about 3:45 p.m. when they saw the cloud formation, Cindy Smith said.
They saw the swirling wind and clouds for a few seconds, long enough for Arielle to snap a picture with her cellphone camera, said Arielle Smith.
Smith said she doubted right from the outset that what she saw was strong enough to become a true tornado. The Smiths left most of the groceries in their vehicle temporarily as they hurried inside to avoid the downpour that followed, Arielle Smith said.
“You don’t think of Maine as a place where this happens,” she said of the funnel.
The last tornado confirmed to have touched down in Maine occurred on June 9, 2011. Several trees in Caribou were torn out and a barn was destroyed, Hewitt said.
Most Maine tornadoes are weak, with winds topping out at 75 mph, and typically fade quickly. Meteorologists, including Hewitt, manning radar units saw circular winds but nothing that appeared to touch down, he said.
A previous version of this story included a photo caption saying Arielle Smith of Millinocket was on her way home from work when she saw a funnel forming. She was on her way home from grocery shopping.