Tornado details released: NWS says it was on the ground for two minutes

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Downed power lines dangle along the side of State Highway 100 Saturday, May 13, 2023, after a tornado touches down in Laguna Heights. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

The National Weather Service Brownsville-Rio Grande Valley station released the results of its damage survey of the tornado that struck Laguna Heights in the early morning hours of May 13, killing one resident and injuring 11 others.

NWS concluded that the tornado that touched down along State Hwy. 100 in the west end of Laguna Heights was an EF1, with estimated winds of 85 to 105 mph. According to the survey, a “rapidly developing mini-supercell formed ahead of an approaching squall line” just before 4 a.m., spawning a “quick spin-up tornado” that was on the ground in Laguna heights for two minutes until the circulation moved out over the Laguna Madre and dissipated.

NWS said the approaching squall line steered the tornado on an east-northeast track, creating a boomerang effect since the original motion of the “radar couplet” was to the north-northwest prior to touchdown. A couplet refers to red and green colors representing winds on a radar image appearing side by side, a strong indication of rotation within a storm.

In some locations winds may have reached 110 mph, the upper limit of the EF1 scale, though the “very poor quality of construction” of buildings in the stricken area suggests top wind speeds of 105 mph, according to the survey.

“The strongest portion of the tornado … flattened at least six poorly built mobile home structures, removed part of the second story of a local business, and removed the majority of roof decking on at least 10 other residences and buildings,” NWS said. “At least a half dozen ash and mesquite trees were snapped or uprooted and two wooden power poles were bent.”

Laguna Heights resident Robert Flores, 41, was killed when a trailer landed on his home. Injured residents were rescued from several demolished mobile homes, including a flattened mobile home on the shore of Laguna Madre.

“Two of the injuries, in the home along the bayfront, required extended hospitalizations,” NWS said. “Thirty-eight additional residents were displaced by the tornado and were housed at the local events center with American Red Cross assistance.”

According to the survey, the tornado traveled 0.43 miles with a maximum path width of 200 yards.

NWS said the survey report is “preliminary and subject to change pending final review of the event and publication in NWS Storm Data.”

Neighbors clear brush and other debris from their homes into a communal pile following a tornado touching down Saturday, May 13, 2023, on Van Buren Street in Laguna Heights. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

Ester Hernandez, who lives on Coolidge Avenue in Laguna Heights, said the tornado passed directly behind her house.

“I woke up because of the thunder,” she said. “I got up to check on my pets, and then as soon as I walked down the hall my daughter got an alert about the tornado. She says, ‘Mom, there’s a tornado warning.’ As soon as she told me about the tornado warning it went right by.”

Hernandez said her daughter saw debris fly by her window as the tornado went by. There was only enough time to run to the center of the hallway in the middle of the house, she said.

“Both of us were holding on to each other in the hallway, and then we heard everything falling on the roof,” Hernandez said. “And we’re just … hoping that the roof is going to hold on.”

She said she’s lived in Laguna Heights all her life and doesn’t remember ever experiencing a tornado before. Ultimately, their home made it through unscathed, though a fence was blown down and a carport needs shoring up, Hernandez said. Power was restored to her house at 5 a.m. Sunday, she said.

Hernandez praised the quick response by the constable’s office and the disaster aid from the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army. Cleanup crews also have done a fantastic job, she said, adding that she hopes never to experience another tornado.

“It sounded like a train went by, right by our house,” Hernandez said. “It was very frightening.”


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