THE SARAGOSA, TEXAS TORNADO
May 22, 1987
by Bill Alexander, Lubbock WSFO
Storm Track, September 30, 1987
© Copyright 1987 Bill Alexander
At 8:15pm, May 22, 1987, the small community of Saragosa, Texas was devastated by a violent multiple-vortex tornado. Of the 183 inhabitants, 30 were killed and 121 injured. The tornado touched down on the west side of town, completely enveloping everything within the town as it curved toward the north. The tornado had a very short path length but was just over a half-mile wide, striking an isolated community in otherwise sparsely populated ranchland.
The first radar indication of a severe storm was noted by Midland radar (WSR-57) at 3:20 pm. The storm, located at azimuth 244 degrees at 108 nm from Midland (or about 20 miles northwest of Balmorhea), had a maximum top of 50,000 feet with a VIP 6 core. Hail was indicated in the storm. At 3:55 pm, golfball-size hail was reported. As of 4:35 pm, the top was down to 37,000 feet, but by 6:05 pm it built back to 44,000 feet. At this time, it was located at azimuth 240 degrees, at 95 nm with little movement indicated. The 6:41 pm radar summary from Midland showed this thunderstorm to have a maximum echo top of 51,000 feet with a VIP 5 core. Figure 1 depicts the path and location of the Saragosa supercell as it tracked across Reeves County.
By 7:20 pm, the storm had become an obvious supercell, with the maximum top displaced directly over the sharpest reflectivity gradient along the inflow side of the storm. The storm now had a VIP 6 core to 21,000 feet and a VIP 5 core to 31,000 feet. It was located 20 miles southwest of Pecos. A Severe Thunderstorm and Flash Flood Warning were issued by the Midland Weather Service valid until 8:45 pm.
Within the next half hour, the maximum top varied between 57,000 feet and 61,000 feet, while the equilibrium level was a mere 37,000 feetl (What an overshoot!!) The precipitation core of the storm was about 10 miles north of Saragosa, showing movement to the east at 10 knots. As the storm continued to move slowly east during the next twenty minutes, the Department of Public Safety (DPS) officers and Skywarn spotters observed it continuously. Spotters reported a rotating wall cloud at 7:46 pm, 4 miles northwest of BallDorhea, and again at 7:48 pm, two miles west of Balmorhea. At 7:54 pm, a tornado warning was issued by the Midland WS0 for Reeves Gounty valid until 9:00 pm. At 7:57 pm, golfball-size hail was reported by a spotter in Balmorhea.
The first tornado was reported by a Pecos DPS officer at 8:05 pm, 4 miles west of Balmorhea. This tornado had a brief ground track of less than a mile and did no appreciable damage in open ranchland
The Saragosa tornado was first reported at 8:14 pm by a Pecos DPS officer 4 miles east of Balmorhea, about 1.5 miles south-southwest of Saragosa. It was simultaneously observed by a family from Midland who were driving southbound on Highway 17, just north of Saragosa. The family was able to escape the tornado.
The strong single vortex tornado swept across ranchland between I-10 and Saragosa destroying a farm house and several outbuildings. This tornado was a precursor to the larger and much more violent multiple- vortex tornado (see figure)."
Editor's note: It was at this time that Mr. Rosendo Carrasco took the only photographs known of the tornado. Mr. Carrasco had just left Saragosa after taking pictures of the pre-kindergarten graduates at the community hall. For many, it was their final picture. As Mr. Carrasco started home for Balmorhea, he saw the twister form in front of him. He snapped a couple of photographs of what looked like a twister in the sky. It wasn't long before he was back in Saragosa again, this time in his capacity as justice of the peace, carrying out the grim task of certifying deaths, as well as assisting rescue operations for the living.
"As the single vortex tornado approached from the south, a huge twister materialized on the west side of Saragosa. From debris scatter and field scour marks, the large tornado apparently absorbed the single vortex into its circulation. The first evidence of the multi-vortex storm was .5 miles west of Highway 17 on Farm Road 1215. The tornado rapidly expanded in width, and its intensity quickly increased from FO to F3 and F4 as it moved through town. Within a half mile, the tornado struck the small business district that lined Highway 17, which runs north-south along the east side of town. About 100 yards north of that intersection the Guadalupe Hall, in which graduation ceremonies were being conducted, was levelled. Twenty-two people died here including many children.
Within .3 miles of touchdown, the tornado began to curve east then northeast. It straddled Highway 17 until it lifted. Total path length was just 1.9 miles, and the maximum path width was between .5 and .6 miles. When the continuous path of the single vortex tornado is added to the path length, the total was 3 miles. FO damage on the fringe of the storm path amounted to downed power and telephone lines, destroyed outbuildings, lost corrugated metal roofing material and broken tree limbs. Fl and F2 damage occurred within a half block of the FO damage and consisted of lost roofs, broken power poles and tree limbs. F3 damage amounted to removal of exterior walls on structures (wood frame and adobe) and impact of metal objects by wooden and concrete missiles. The most intense damage, F4 in strength, occurred over most of the residential and business area. F4 intensity measured .75 miles in length and .25 miles wide. Within this area, homes were totally destroyed, with no interior walls left standing. Many automobiles were hurled into buildings, some between 500 and 900 feet into an open field east of Highway 17.
Estimated property damage was $1.3 million dollars which amounts to 85 percent of the total property value. Virtually all the residents of Saragosa were unemployed and uninsured. However, this is a community of long standing traditions, whose existence dates back nearly a century, and many of its residents were second and third generations. They will find a way to rebuild."