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In just five minutes, a tornado tore through the small Laguna Madre community of Laguna Heights early Saturday morning, leaving in its wake one death, 11 injuries and significant damage to area residences, businesses and other property.
Historically, Saturday’s death is the first attributed to a tornado in the Rio Grande Valley since the 20th century.
National Weather Service in Brownsville Meteorologist Barry Goldsmith said Saturday that the agency is still reviewing data from Saturday’s storm including historical record, but he was confident that one may have to go as far back as the 1950s since there was a tornado-related death in the Valley.
Meteorologist Angelica Soria said an NWS survey team was assessing damages in Laguna Heights late Saturday morning to confirm reports of the tornado, which at the time was still unconfirmed.
By noon, an EF1 tornado with wind speeds between 86 and 105 miles per hour was confirmed to have struck Laguna Heights between 4:01 and 4:06 a.m.
“We’re on the phone with them right now for our survey team so we’re going to try to figure out if there was a confirmed tornado,” Soria said minutes before it was announced that a tornado had struck the area.
The victim’s identity has not been revealed by emergency agencies or local governments as of press time Saturday, but there are already local tributes being paid to that person on social media.
Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino Jr., who has already issued a disaster declaration, said in a news conference that the person killed in the tornado was crushed by damage sustained to his mobile home.
The extent of injuries sustained to several residents are not life threatening, according to Trevino, and while national and international media are reporting two deaths in the area, local agencies have only confirmed a single fatality as of Saturday afternoon.
The damages sustained in the Laguna Heights area Saturday were extensive. Homes and businesses had their roofs ripped off while awnings were seen wrapped around utility poles, power lines dangled from above and vehicles appeared to have been displaced, not to mention debris from fences and whatever structures were ripped apart laid strewn in residential areas and down Ocean Boulevard.
Juan Gomez, the owner of apartments located in the Van Buren Street and Jackson area of Laguna Heights, said the force of the tornado was such that it pushed a nearby home from its front porch and into his property.
Gomez said he hadn’t seen anything like that since Hurricane Dolly in 2008.
Residents in the area posted photos and videos on social media showing some of these damages and more.
In nearby Port Isabel, city officials opened a shelter for area residents to stay safe from the storm, with Valley Regional Medical Center setting up a triage center “for walking wounded.”
The shelter, located at the Port Isabel Event & Cultural Center on 309 E. Railroad Ave., was scheduled to remain in place until it was no longer needed. Residents are asked to call a non-emergency number, (956) 943-2727, for more information on the shelter.
The damages also caused a road closure on State Highway 100 going towards Port Isabel from Farm-to-Market Road 510, which was blocked to all traffic on Saturday. Traffic was being redirected back to Los Fresnos while westbound traffic was turned around at the stop.
According to Soria, these types of tornadoes are more commonly seen during tropical systems; however, since the Valley is currently facing a severe weather season it is not unheard of to see a tornado of that caliber.
“Not common but definitely not out of the ordinary,” she added.
By 1 p.m. Saturday, the worst had already passed and Soria said the weather is expected to be much calmer throughout Mother’s Day weekend.
Overnight the Valley saw wind speeds of about 40 to 50 mph in the Brownsville area which calmed to about 7 mph later Saturday. In Hidalgo County, wind speeds reached about 30 to 40 mph throughout the night but dropped to about 10 mph during the day.
From the counties of Hidalgo to Cameron, the Valley saw a total of about 3.5 to 4.5 inches of rain. These are unofficial numbers provided by NWS since there may still be rain recorded this weekend.
Although wind speeds have calmed, Soria explained that the rainfall will continue throughout the weekend with some light to moderate showers.
“At this time we are not looking at anything severe,” Soria said.
The damage has already been done with agencies in Cameron County, including South Padre Island, Port Isabel and Los Fresnos first responders as well as county and Texas Department of Public Safety authorities assisting in the cleanup efforts in Laguna Heights and the surrounding areas.
There were also several events canceled Saturday due to heavy rains earlier that day, most notably the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley canceling its commencement ceremony in Brownsville.
Here’s a rundown of more damages and storm-related disruptions.
Brownsville Herald staff photographer Denise Cathey contributed to this report.