Executive Summary

Many valuable lessons can be learned from the conduct of postdisaster reconnaissance studies of natural disasters. They provide the opportunity to collect highly perishable data for assessing the extent to which state-of-the-art knowledge or technology has been implemented and they provide the information needed to develop methods of overcoming obstacles to implementation. Such studies can also identify future research needs. Depending on the nature of a natural disaster and its effects on a community, each reconnaissance effort may result in a special emphasis on one or more aspects of the natural disaster reduction process.

The primary purpose of this report is to combine the information provided by respondents to a postdisaster survey (see Chapter 5) with the facts surrounding the May 22, 1987, Saragosa tornado in order to understand and evaluate the severe weather warning procedures used in Reeves County, Texas. The intent of this evaluation is to determine ways of adjusting existing warning systems and better prepare the citizens, public officials, and news media in Reeves County, as well as in every city, county, and township where severe weather threatens lives and property.

The small community of Saragosa, Texas, was devastated by a violent multiple-vortex tornado between 8:15 and 8:20 p.m. CDT on Friday, May 22, 1987. (All references to time in this report except where noted otherwise are to central daylight time [CDT]). Thirty people were killed and 121 were injured in this unincorporated town of 428 residents located in sparsely populated Reeves County in southwest Texas. The town hall, post office, two churches, a school, and half the town's homes were destroyed.

Tornadoes are rare in southern Reeves County. Records indicate that there were 20 tornadoes from 1950 through 1986. Prior to the 1987 event, no tornado-related fatalities had occurred in Saragosa since 1916, when



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement



Below are the first 10 and last 10 pages of uncorrected machine-read text (when available) of this chapter, followed by the top 30 algorithmically extracted key phrases from the chapter as a whole.
Intended to provide our own search engines and external engines with highly rich, chapter-representative searchable text on the opening pages of each chapter. Because it is UNCORRECTED material, please consider the following text as a useful but insufficient proxy for the authoritative book pages.

Do not use for reproduction, copying, pasting, or reading; exclusively for search engines.

OCR for page 1
NATURAL DISASTER STUDIES: SARAGOSA, TEXAS, TORNADO Executive Summary Many valuable lessons can be learned from the conduct of postdisaster reconnaissance studies of natural disasters. They provide the opportunity to collect highly perishable data for assessing the extent to which state-of-the-art knowledge or technology has been implemented and they provide the information needed to develop methods of overcoming obstacles to implementation. Such studies can also identify future research needs. Depending on the nature of a natural disaster and its effects on a community, each reconnaissance effort may result in a special emphasis on one or more aspects of the natural disaster reduction process. The primary purpose of this report is to combine the information provided by respondents to a postdisaster survey (see Chapter 5) with the facts surrounding the May 22, 1987, Saragosa tornado in order to understand and evaluate the severe weather warning procedures used in Reeves County, Texas. The intent of this evaluation is to determine ways of adjusting existing warning systems and better prepare the citizens, public officials, and news media in Reeves County, as well as in every city, county, and township where severe weather threatens lives and property. The small community of Saragosa, Texas, was devastated by a violent multiple-vortex tornado between 8:15 and 8:20 p.m. CDT on Friday, May 22, 1987. (All references to time in this report except where noted otherwise are to central daylight time [CDT]). Thirty people were killed and 121 were injured in this unincorporated town of 428 residents located in sparsely populated Reeves County in southwest Texas. The town hall, post office, two churches, a school, and half the town's homes were destroyed. Tornadoes are rare in southern Reeves County. Records indicate that there were 20 tornadoes from 1950 through 1986. Prior to the 1987 event, no tornado-related fatalities had occurred in Saragosa since 1916, when

OCR for page 1
NATURAL DISASTER STUDIES: SARAGOSA, TEXAS, TORNADO recordkeeping began. Even this violent tornado was short lived, with a path length of 3 miles and a width of one-half mile. A severe thunderstorm watch was in effect for Reeves County from 3:45 to 10:00 p.m. The National Weather Service (NWS) office at Midland issued a tornado warning for south-central Reeves County at 7:54 p.m., valid until 9:00 p.m. Other warnings and statements mentioning Reeves County were issued by the NWS office at Midland during the afternoon prior to the tornado. Major radio and television stations in the Midland/Odessa area promptly broadcast the tornado warning. The radio station in Pecos, 30 miles north of Saragosa, transmitted the warning in both Spanish and English. Midland/Odessa television stations began to display a severe thunderstorm watch symbol in a lower corner of the television screen when watches and warnings were first issued in mid-afternoon. These actions likely saved lives but unfortunately did not prevent a disaster. The extreme devastation caused by the tornado left many residents with little time to react and few safety options to seek. Twenty-two of the 30 deaths occurred in the town's community center, Saragosa Hall, where 70 to 100 people were attending a Head Start graduation exercise. Even though warnings were broadcast by radio and television stations, they did not reach the people at the hall. Rather, the people at the hall were warned of the approaching tornado by a man who ran in to pick up his son. There were also reports of people driving through town honking their horns. During the 1 to 2 minutes before the tornado hit, there were many instances of people demonstrating knowledge of tornado safety rules by taking proper protective actions. Despite the extensive warning dissemination efforts, which are documented in this report, the overall warning system in Saragosa failed to reach most of the residents of Saragosa and those at the community center in time for them to take effective safety measures. This communication failure indicates that warnings, to be effective, require either a common shared culture or adaptation of the warning system to multicultural social contexts. In Saragosa neither requirement was satisfied. The Saragosa community center was considered one of the strongest structures in the town. Even with the best warning system, a community needs a safe haven. Given the strength of the tornado, there were few safe places in Saragosa that evening. Proper provisions in building design and construction should be incorporated in reconstructing the community. Six months after the Saragosa event, on November 15, B. E. Aguirre —the senior author of the present study—performed postdisaster reconnaissance on another tornado, this time in Palestine, Texas. The latter, which draws a number of similar observations as those from the Saragosa tornado with respect to technical ability to detect tornadoes, advance issuance of warnings, and failure of warning dissemination, is included as Appendix F.

OCR for page 1
NATURAL DISASTER STUDIES: SARAGOSA, TEXAS, TORNADO

OCR for page 1
NATURAL DISASTER STUDIES: SARAGOSA, TEXAS, TORNADO