Border Tornado a Rude Wake-up Call

In an era of climate change, the May 25 tornado that devastated the Mexican city of Ciudad Acuna, Coahuila, stands as another environmental wake-up call for Mexico and the border region.
Considered by Mexican experts the worst tornado to strike their country in the past 15 years, the Category 4 twister killed at least 14 people, injured almost 300 and damaged about 600 houses, with 147 homes initially judged complete losses.

Businesses were demolished, and both heavy and light vehicles catapulted into the air and pulverized.

“There are cars on top of homes, dead people tossed around the street, and total chaos,” said Maria del Rosario Ramirez, a resident of Ciudad Acuna’s Altos de Santa Teresa neighborhood.

An estimated 6,500 people were affected by the disaster, according to Mexican officials. A city of approximately 137,000 people, Ciudad Acuna sits across the Rio Grande from Del Rio, Texas.
Mexican authorities responded quickly to the killer tornado, mobilizing the Mexican army for emergency relief and setting up temporary shelters. Within three days of the tornado’s passage, the Federal Electricity Commission calculated that its crews had restored 95 percent of the power which was knocked out on May 25.

In a second visit to Ciudad Acuna this week, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto said the tornado hit in a “surprise way” and lasted only seconds. Pena Nieto assured residents that authorities of all stripes were working hard to determine the extent of the damage to the city and rolling up their sleeves to repair it.

“It won’t be from night to day,” the Mexican president said. “We are going to have to clean, clear out debris, get rid of houses and rebuild them.”

As the week wore on, polemics stirred in the Mexican media over the lack of warning preceding the twister.

Dr. Jesus Manuel Macias, a geographer with Mexico City’s Center for Research and Higher Education in Social Anthropology, said a U.S. alert about the risk of a tornado in the Ciudad Acuna area was issued at 3:17 on the morning of Monday, May 25,  or a little more than two hours before the tornado swept through the Mexican border city.

“This (alert) was not reviewed in Mexico,” Macias affirmed.

Maria de Jesus Guadalupe Gallo, weather forecasting chief for the National Water Commission (Conagua) in Coahuila, said the state civil protection agency as well as the municipal governments of both Ciudad Acuna and Piedras Negras were alerted about the possibility of a tornado but no definite prediction was rendered because of the sudden nature of twisters.

Gallo’s admission that Conagua’s Ciudad Acuna alert was done via e-mail, instead of by utilizing additional media, prompted sarcastic comments from readers on the Zocalo and Diario de Juarez news sites.

Oscar Velasco Fuentes, a researcher with the Center for Scientific Research and Higher Education of Ensenada in Baja California, said knowledge of tornados has progressed over the years but predicting exactly when and where they will form is still an elusive science. According to Velasco, the most destructive tornado recorded to date that struck Mexico was precisely in Coahuila, when an 1899 event killed 22 people.

Although tornados whip up in Mexican states stretching from Chihuahua to Chiapas, Coahuila’s geographical location makes it a vulnerable entity.

“The technical explanation for this phenomenon rests with the formation of a storm that generates a tornado in northern Mexico and requires the collision of two different air masses,” Gallo said. “The first
(mass) is of very humid and dry air from the Gulf of Mexico, and the second is of dry air from the plains of the southern part of the U.S.”

Questions about warning systems for tornados are not confined to the Mexican side of the border. Despite the U.S. National Weather Service’s warning of a tornado in the Ciudad Acuna-Del  Rio area on May 25, the reported failure to activate the Texas city’s emergency sirens has prompted a special meeting of the Del Rio City Council for Sunday, May 31.

Unlike its Mexican neighbor, Del Rio escaped the tornado’s wrath.

Mexican academics assessed the Ciudad Acuna tornado as laying bare, in dramatic and tragic fashion, their country’s unpreparedness for such contingencies and urged much greater investment in scientific research and technology, public alert systems and civil protection in general.

Macias said Mexico lags behind in the meteorological field. Although his country  counts on a dozen Doppler radar systems, half of them are usually non-functioning because of system failures, Macias said.
What’s more, the existing systems have a limited vision, for instance covering only about half of Coahuila’s territory, he said.

“There is a lot of territory that remains outside the studies,” Macias added.

German Raul Vera, a researcher with the National Polytechnic Institute, called for bolstering infrastructure and civil protection in the wake of the deadly Coahuila tornado. Vera said a popular misconception exists that tornados are only a problem in plains environments, but many have touched down in different parts of Mexico during recent years.

Macias, who’s researched and written about tornados for the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said 252 tornados were registered in the country from 2000 to 2014. Besides their toll on human life, tornados are very costly in economic terms, he said.  According to the researcher, more than $100 million in damages were caused by three tornados alone in recent years: Tabasco (2001), Piedras Negras, Coahuila (2007) and Mexico City (2008).

Ciudad Acuna’s working class was the sector of the population most impacted by the May 25 tornado. When the twister pounded the earth, many people were preparing for the morning shift in the maquiladora plants that manufacture goods for the U.S. market, especially electronic and automotive products.

The twister exposed the fragility of housing reserved for maquiladora workers, who reside in small homes built by a tax-financed program. Alejandro Murat, director of the Infonavit housing program, said his agency has insurance to cover the damaged or destroyed homes.

The first step, Murat said, is to get insurance adjusters on the ground so compensation amounts can be quantified. More than 3,000 people living in Infonavit-financed subdivisions were among the most affected by the deadly tornado.

Meanwhile, residents of both Ciudad Acuna and Del Rio are collecting donations to aid tornado victims.

Sources: La Jornada (Baja California edition), May 27, 2015. El Diario de Juarez, May 27, 2015., May 27, 2015. Article by Karen Gleason., May 26, 27 and 28, 2015. Articles by Osiris Cantu, Hervey Sifuentes and editorial staff. Proceso/Apro, May 26 and 27, 2015. Notimex, May 25, 2015. La Jornada, May 25, 26 and 27, 2015. Articles by Leopoldo Ramos, Patricia Munoz, Carolina Gomez, and editorial staff.

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