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Tornado Disaster -- Texas

On May 22, 1987, between 8:15 p.m. and 8:20 p.m., Saragosa, Texas, was devastated by a violent, multiple-vortex tornado, with winds of 207-260 mph. Saragosa is an unincorporated Hispanic community of 5 200-415 persons located in sparsely populated Reeves County (population 16,300) in southwest Texas. The tornado inflicted widespread damage throughout the town. The worst damage occurred in the residential and business areas where structures were totally destroyed. Many automobiles were hurled several hundred feet into buildings and homes. One hundred three families incurred severe economic losses.

Thirty people were killed and 131 injured. Among the destroyed buildings was a community hall in which about 80 persons had gathered for a graduation ceremony for preschool children; 22 persons died and approximately 60 were injured inside this hall. Three persons in a e frame home, four in mobile homes, and one in an automobile also died. Five of the decedents were less than 5 years of age, three were 5-16 years, 17 were 20-59 years, and four were over the age of 60. The mean age at death was 37 years.

Persons with minor injuries were treated on the site; others were referred to five hospitals in nearby communities. Most victims (93 casualties and 31 hospital admissions in less than 8 hours) were treatedd 30 miles away in Pecos at the hospital closest to Saragosa. Most injuries consisted of contusions, lacerations, and fractures. Some wounds became infected because of dust and soil contamination and insufficient first aid. In addition to the 131 injuries associated with the immediate impact of the tornado, many postimpact injuries were sustained by residents or emergency workers. These injuries included sunburn, heat exposure, lacerations, cuts, puncture wounds, fingers crushed with hammers, and animal bites. The American Red Cross also reported several stress-related medical conditions, such as hypertensionn and diabetic reactions due to failure to take insulin.

Because electricity was interrupted in the entire area, a potential health problem involved perishable food requiring refrigeration. Residents were advised to dispose of all perishable food and were provided with meals by the Red Cross mobile canteen. The disaster site was watered to avoid excessive dust exposure. Tents used for meetings and temporary storage facilities were raised on the site by the Nationall Guard. Portable restrooms and showers were placed on the site. Both the American Red Cross and the Texas Department of Health Regional Office established outpatient centers that ensured a continuity in medical and immunization care, issued copies of lost medical records and immunization certificates, and provided some mental health follow-up an d counseling. Reported by: Disaster Operations, National Headquarters, American Red Cross; National Weather Svc Southern Region, Fort Worth, Texas. Div of Environmental Hazards and Health Effects, Center for Environmental Health and Injury Control, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: Tornadoes occur frequently in most parts of Texas but are relatively rare in Reeves County. The proximity of the Davis Mountains, less than 20 miles south and west of Saragosa, deter their development. Records show only 20 tornadoes in Reeves County from 1950 through 1986. No tornado-related fatalities were recorded in the county before 1987, even though record keeping began in 1916 (1).

A severe thunderstorm watch was in effect on May 22, 1987, for Reeves County from 3:45 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., and beginning midafternoon local television stations displayed a severe thunderstorm watch symbol. The National Weather Service (NWS) Office at Midland issued a tornado warning for south and central Reeves County at 7:54 p.m. This warning was partly based on reports of forming tornadoes from NWS-trained storm spotters. Local radio and TV stations promptly broadcasted the warning. The radio station in Pecos broadcasted the warning in both English and Spanish.

Although the graduation exercise attendees did not hear the broadcast of the NWS warning, they were warned of the approaching tornado by a person who had stepped outside and spotted it. Despite somee confusion, during the 1-2 minutes before the tornado hit, many persons demonstrated knowledge of tornado safety by taking proper protective action. Parents removed the kindergarten children from the stage and placed them under tables and benches next to the walls. Parents also used themselves as shields to protect their children. The open structuree of the community hall made these actions the only options for safety. Some persons considered leaving the hall but remembered safety rules advising against being in the open or in vehicles in a tornado. None of the 4- and 5-year-old children participating in the graduation exercise were killed.

The NWS issued the tornado warning for the area 20 minutes before the tornado hit, but the town did not have a warning siren. Even if a siren had been activated, there was no preidentified shelter in this community or county, and the community hall might have been considered one of the safest structures. Most housing structures were not built to withstand high wind, and walls were constructed of wood, bricks, adobe, or unreinforced concrete. The numbers of injuries and deaths were high (an estimated 70% of persons in the swath of the tornado were injured) probably because of the lack of shelters and protective housing.

This episode and previous tornado disasters emphasize several point s that apply to general tornado preparedness (2-4; CDC, unpublished data) . Providing a warning message is only one part of the overall preparedness; other actions should include plans for coordination with the news media and local officials, training storm spotters, and developing other public awareness efforts. Bilingual and Spanish- speaking broadcast stations should also be provided with tornado preparedness materials. Groups with mobile communications capability, such as police and fire departments, highway patrols, and amateur radio operators, are especially important. Potential shelters should also be identified and evaluated. Finally, investigations of natural disasters and establishment of surveillance systems are fundamental to assess and improve preparedness efficiency (5).


  1. Department of Commerce. Natural disaster survey report: the Saragosa , Texas, tornado, May 22, 1987. Forth Worth, Texas: US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 1987:3.

  2. Glass RI, Craven RB, Bregman DJ, et al. Injuries from the Wichita Falls tornado: implications for prevention. Science 1980;207:734-8.

  3. CDC. Tornado disaster--North Carolina, South Carolina, March 28, 1984. MMWR 1985; 34:205-6,211-3.

  4. CDC. Tornado disaster--Pennsylvania. MMWR 1986;35:233-5.

  5. Sanderson L. Tornadoes. In: Gregg MB, French JG, eds. The public health consequences of disasters. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, 1986:1-28.

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