5

Observations Recommendations, and Conclusions

OBSERVATIONS

A number of observations were made from the study conducted by the reconnaissance team:

  • A severe thunderstorm watch issued by the National Severe Storms Forecast Center had been in effect for Reeves County since 3:45 p.m. Since mid-afternoon NWS Midland issued warnings and statements that detailed severe storms in the county. The tornado warning lead time was in excess of 20 minutes, which is significantly better than can be expected with the current state of tornado detection technology.

  • The positive and quick reaction by the news media was due in part to a close working relationship with NWS Midland. Personal visits by NWS meteorologists to radio stations throughout the warning areas, especially those in rural areas, is an effective part of the dissemination and warning process.

  • Significant warning dissemination service was provided by the Pecos radio station KIUN-AM/KPTX-FM. The 7:37 p.m. severe thunderstorm and flash flood warning and the 7:54 p.m. tornado warning were broadcast in both Spanish and English, as were the safety rules. The warnings were also broadcast by KPTX-FM in English. All Midland and Odessa television stations display relevant severe thunderstorm or tornado watch and warning symbols in a lower corner of the television screen when appropriate. This technique is an effective means of alerting the public to the threat of severe weather, but it is utilized by only a small percentage of the television stations nationwide.

  • The hours devoted to amateur radio storm spotter training proved invaluable. The tornado warning issued at 7:54 p.m. was partly based on two



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NATURAL DISASTER STUDIES: SARAGOSA, TEXAS, TORNADO 5 Observations Recommendations, and Conclusions OBSERVATIONS A number of observations were made from the study conducted by the reconnaissance team: A severe thunderstorm watch issued by the National Severe Storms Forecast Center had been in effect for Reeves County since 3:45 p.m. Since mid-afternoon NWS Midland issued warnings and statements that detailed severe storms in the county. The tornado warning lead time was in excess of 20 minutes, which is significantly better than can be expected with the current state of tornado detection technology. The positive and quick reaction by the news media was due in part to a close working relationship with NWS Midland. Personal visits by NWS meteorologists to radio stations throughout the warning areas, especially those in rural areas, is an effective part of the dissemination and warning process. Significant warning dissemination service was provided by the Pecos radio station KIUN-AM/KPTX-FM. The 7:37 p.m. severe thunderstorm and flash flood warning and the 7:54 p.m. tornado warning were broadcast in both Spanish and English, as were the safety rules. The warnings were also broadcast by KPTX-FM in English. All Midland and Odessa television stations display relevant severe thunderstorm or tornado watch and warning symbols in a lower corner of the television screen when appropriate. This technique is an effective means of alerting the public to the threat of severe weather, but it is utilized by only a small percentage of the television stations nationwide. The hours devoted to amateur radio storm spotter training proved invaluable. The tornado warning issued at 7:54 p.m. was partly based on two

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NATURAL DISASTER STUDIES: SARAGOSA, TEXAS, TORNADO reports of “rotating wall clouds” from NWS-trained SKYWARN storm spotters. The decision to warn apparently was made almost simultaneously by NWS Midland's radar operators and the meteorologist in charge (MIC), who was working with the on-station SKYWARN amateur radio operators. The amateur radio operators' reports clearly enhanced the MIC's confidence that a warning was required. Amateur radio operators have consistently demonstrated a dedication and willingness to serve the public and have continued to be excellent severe storm spotters. The presence of an amateur radio operator in the weather office provided almost instant relay of information from spotters in the field. This volunteer group makes a significant contribution to the NWS warning program. NOAA Weather Radio (NWR) indirectly provided warnings for Saragosa through the major television stations in Midland/Odessa and the EBS station in Midland, all of which have NWR receivers, many with the warning alarm feature. NWR supplements and complements the weather wire service. Even though the warning tone is not sounded for Reeves County because it is not in the service area of the Odessa transmitter, all warnings issued by NWS Midland for its county warning area are placed on NWR. Many people in Saragosa were aware of basic tornado safety rules, and many individuals took proper protective actions. While it is difficult to estimate the number of people who are alive as a result, the death toll would have been higher had fewer individuals reacted properly. Discussions with survivors clearly indicated that last-minute protective measures did save lives and reduced injuries. Since 1975, when some of the first organized tornado awareness weeks were begun, NWS offices have promoted public education about weather hazards. These mass media campaigns as well as group and individual awareness and educational efforts have a cumulative effect in raising the consciousness level of the public. The Law Enforcement Teletype System (LETS) is extremely efficient at distributing NWS tornado watch and warning information to local law enforcement offices and emergency operating centers in those states where a direct tie exists between the LETS and the AFOS communication systems. In the NWS Southern Region such ties exist in Texas and Oklahoma, and the interface has proven invaluable for the rapid relay of NWS warning information. During the Saragosa event, the Department of Public Safety (DPS) office in Pecos and the Reeves County sheriff 's office received NWS tornado watch and warning information from the Texas LETS. Only 20 tornadoes were reported in Reeves County from 1950 through 1986, with no tornado fatalities listed from 1916 through 1986. This may relate to the close proximity of the Davis Mountains. The rapid development of this strong tornado so close to the Davis Mountains warrants further study.

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NATURAL DISASTER STUDIES: SARAGOSA, TEXAS, TORNADO Most residents of Saragosa are Hispanic; many speak only Spanish. An increased effort is needed to provide bilingual and Spanish-language broadcast stations with appropriate preparedness materials. Local Spanish-language television programming is a popular and growing media in the southwestern United States. The NWS should assist with preparing materials to reach the region's significant Hispanic population. RECOMMENDATIONS The need for multiethnic/multilingual warning procedures should be recognized, and such procedures should be developed and tested, for their applicability as well as their improvement, at the earliest possible time. State-level policies should be developed to implement emergency planning and responses in unincorporated areas because these areas are typically overlooked in the planning efforts of neighboring jurisdictions yet are not large enough to sustain a sufficient preparedness program on their own. Warning dissemination through both regular and cable television systems, especially ethnic channels, by displaying severe thunderstorm or tornado watch and warning symbols in the lower corner of the television screen should be implemented, particularly to reach unincorporated areas in sparsely populated rural counties. Proper building design and construction provisions should be incorporated into future construction practices. More precision is needed in preparing warning messages for areas at high risk. The NWS should translate its warning messages into different languages to facilitate dissemination of the information to more people. NWS offices should continue to work closely with local news media to achieve two purposes: (1) to encourage, advise, and assist in the understanding of and prompt dissemination of NWS watches and warnings and (2) to encourage, advise, and assist with the broadcast of educational preparedness information designed to increase public awareness and preparedness. The NWS should continue as well as enhance, where necessary, severe storm spotter training efforts. A special focus should continue to be placed on groups with mobile communications capabilities, such as police and fire departments, highway patrol officers, and amateur radio operators. The NWS should continue to make possible the direct connection of LETS or LETS-type circuits to its internal communication system (AFOS and subsequently AWIPS1) to encourage and promote rapid distribution of public safety information to law enforcement and emergency management agencies.

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NATURAL DISASTER STUDIES: SARAGOSA, TEXAS, TORNADO CONCLUSION Perhaps one of the most significant aspects of the Saragosa disaster is what it teaches about what can go wrong even with a sophisticated warning system. The most accurate and timely warnings might not be effective without coordination with local news media and public officials, training of storm spotters, and an ongoing culturally sensitive public awareness effort. Another important lesson to be learned from this disaster is that in the United States the effectiveness of warnings depends on either a common shared language and culture or adaptation of the warning system to a multilingual/ multicultural social structure. Public policies and programs to lessen the destructive effects of natural disasters need to examine the cultural heterogeneity of the population they serve and to adjust their services accordingly. As Perry (1987) has indicated, officials in charge of disaster preparedness planning need to develop ethnic profiles of the communities they serve to maximize the effectiveness of their services. Despite considerable social scientific work on warnings (see Drabek, 1986, pp. 70-99, for a thorough review of the literature), very little is known about the ways in which the dimensions of warning systems (e.g., initial responses, message quality, confirmation and coalescing behavior, and organizational and community responses) are affected by the ethnic and racial characteristics of target populations. This dearth of social science work on the interrelationships between dimensions of ethnicity and disaster-related experiences is documented in Perry 's (1987) exhaustive review of the literature. The first major study of disaster experiences of American minority citizens is that by Perry et al. (1983), but much remains to be done in this area. There is a special need for holistic analyses of the social organization and culture of ethnic communities and the meaning of disaster preparedness in these communities. Perry et al.'s study shows the importance of some elements of ethnic culture and society and argues for the systematic assessment of these matters in future studies of warning effectiveness and response. Their arguments clearly are reinforced by the postdisaster study team's observations of this May 1987 tornado in Saragosa. NOTE 1. AWIPS (Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System), a new system for communicating and displaying weather data under development by the NWS for its operations in the 1990s.