Appendix F

Palestine, Texas, Tornado—November 15, 1987 *

DISASTER RESPONSE

The city of Palestine, Texas, in Anderson County, is approximately 120 miles southeast of Dallas. On Sunday, November 15, 1987, a tornado hit the city at about 3:05 p.m. The tornado was part of a larger storm system that destroyed scores of homes and businesses, killed 10 people, and injured approximately 160 others in central and eastern Texas. Among the places hardest hit by tornadoes as were:

  • Giddings, Lee County—a tornado destroyed an electric power stati on, damaged 35 homes, and injured eight persons in mostly black and Mexican neighborhoods in northeast Giddings.

  • Caldwell, in adjacent Burleson County—a tornado killed two persons, injured 12, and damaged or destroyed 42 residences.

  • Madison County—two people were killed and two were injured.

  • Jacksonville, Cherokee County (25 miles northeast of Palestine)—two people died and 75 were injured.

  • Whitehouse, Smith County—two people died and four were injured.

The tornado's path through the western part of Palestine was on average 4 miles long and one-half mile wide. It followed U.S. Highway 79 for almost 2 miles through the center of town. In Palestine (population 18,153) the Westwood subdivision bore the brunt of the damage. Fifty-one persons were injured, and one man was killed in his trailer home in the Scrougeout Community in southwest Anderson County. The tornado heavily damaged

*

Prepared by B. E. Aguirre, Texas A&M University.



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NATURAL DISASTER STUDIES: SARAGOSA, TEXAS, TORNADO Appendix F Palestine, Texas, Tornado—November 15, 1987 * DISASTER RESPONSE The city of Palestine, Texas, in Anderson County, is approximately 120 miles southeast of Dallas. On Sunday, November 15, 1987, a tornado hit the city at about 3:05 p.m. The tornado was part of a larger storm system that destroyed scores of homes and businesses, killed 10 people, and injured approximately 160 others in central and eastern Texas. Among the places hardest hit by tornadoes as were: Giddings, Lee County—a tornado destroyed an electric power stati on, damaged 35 homes, and injured eight persons in mostly black and Mexican neighborhoods in northeast Giddings. Caldwell, in adjacent Burleson County—a tornado killed two persons, injured 12, and damaged or destroyed 42 residences. Madison County—two people were killed and two were injured. Jacksonville, Cherokee County (25 miles northeast of Palestine)—two people died and 75 were injured. Whitehouse, Smith County—two people died and four were injured. The tornado's path through the western part of Palestine was on average 4 miles long and one-half mile wide. It followed U.S. Highway 79 for almost 2 miles through the center of town. In Palestine (population 18,153) the Westwood subdivision bore the brunt of the damage. Fifty-one persons were injured, and one man was killed in his trailer home in the Scrougeout Community in southwest Anderson County. The tornado heavily damaged * Prepared by B. E. Aguirre, Texas A&M University.

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NATURAL DISASTER STUDIES: SARAGOSA, TEXAS, TORNADO A. M. Story Elementary School and moderately damaged George Washington Elementary School and two churches (Lakeview Conference Center of the United Methodist Church and Camp Zion Baptist Church), as well as, according to city officials' accounts, 128 homes and 86 businesses (many of them fronted Palestine Avenue—Highway 79—from the Westwood area to Loop 256 and north to Highway 287). The city's industrial park suffered heavy damage. City officials variously estimated the damage at between $8 million and $15 million. Elsewhere in the county 65 residences were damaged, especially along the southern part of Harcrow Road, FM 1990, and Texas 294. The number of fatalities probably Would have been much higher had the tornado struck earlier in the day on Sunday or if it had occurred during a working day. For example, according to press reports, more than 350 people had just left the Lakeview Conference Center when the tornado touched down and heavily damaged 75 percent of the facilities (estimated damage $2.5 million, Palestine Herald Press, November 16, Sec. B, p. 2). Camp Zion Baptist Church was completely demolished; earlier in the day about 50 people had attended worship services there. Westside Assembly of God, which sustained moderate damage, had worship services earlier in the day for about 100 people (Palestine Herald Press, November 17, Sec. B, p. 6). WARNING DISSEMINATION The author was interested in finding out how many people in the sections of Palestine struck by the tornado had been warned about the seriousness of the approaching bad weather and about the likelihood and actual occurrence of tornadoes. Because of lack of resources, it was not possible to survey a representative sample of the population to find an answer to this question. Thus, the observations made below are provisional, based on what the author found during his visit to the city. Similar to the Saragosa event, warnings about the strong probability that a tornado would strike Palestine were given well in advance of the time of impact. According to press reports, a spokesperson for the National Weather Service mentioned that a tornado watch had been issued for Anderson County at 8:45 a.m. on Sunday and that a tornado warning was issued at 2:55 p.m. The sheriff received a call at 2:05 p.m. from the Fort Worth National Weather Station warning him to expect very high winds, heavy rains, and probable tornadoes in southern Anderson County by 3:00 p.m. that afternoon. This warning was extremely accurate, missing the actual time of tornado impact by 5 minutes. Although given well in advance, to the extent that the author could verify during his visit, the warning did not reach the citizens of Palestine. Ac-

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NATURAL DISASTER STUDIES: SARAGOSA, TEXAS, TORNADO cording to the sheriff, he did not have the means to use the information at his disposal to warn people in the county. He had only two deputies on duty that afternoon, and there were no mechanisms in place to effectively disseminate warnings in the county. The sheriff knew but could not tell his fellow citizens what was expected to happen. Radio station KLIS in Palestine was very active in broadcasting weather information the day of the disaster. It gave severe weather warnings throughout the day and began Emergency Broadcasting Service (EBS) at 2:48 p.m., after the station manager received a call from the weather station at Fort Worth, Texas, informing him that a tornado was approaching Palestine from the southeast. KLIS was knocked off the air by a tornado at 3:08 p.m., after approximately 15 minutes of EBS. It is unknown how many and what kind of people in the county heard the warnings broadcast by KLIS. In this study the author did not find anyone who was warned through the radio broadcast. There is some circumstantial evidence that the warnings did not reach a significant proportion of the people of Palestine. Accounts in the press bear this out. For instance, the Palestine Herald Press (Monday, November 16, 1987, p. 10a) reported that “Dexton Shores, pastor of First Hispanic Baptist Church, rode out the storm with his wife and two sons in their small frame house Sunday. ‘It was just a complete surprise—we had no warning at all,' he said.” Another article stated that “E. R. Thompson, 74, was asleep on the couch of the living room of his home at 205 West Point Tap Road next to the Texas Animal Health Commission when the wind shattered the windows of his home.” The author asked a number of people who were working in businesses along U.S. 79 the afternoon of the tornado if they had been warned; none had. A case in point is the story in the Palestine Herald Press (November 16, Sec. B, p. 1) of a woman who called her place of work on U.S. 79 to warn her unsuspecting fellow workers. “My husband is a policeman and had called home to warn me,” she explained. Her call arrived just as the business was being demolished by the tornado. This story is interesting because it shows that when an effective system of warning the public is absent the information becomes privatized and dependent on preexisting social relationships. Segments of the public are warned; others are left out. This point can be illustrated another way. The author interviewed people in 15 Westwood households located in the path of the tornado. People in 10 of the households received no warning. In the remaining households only one person mentioned that at 10:00 a.m. he heard on television that thunderstorms were possible for Palestine. He received no other warning, however, and was watching a football game when the electricity went out and the tornado struck. A man in another household had a similar experience. His daughter

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NATURAL DISASTER STUDIES: SARAGOSA, TEXAS, TORNADO called him during the morning and told him that the town was under a tornado watch, but he received no other warning and was watching a football game on television when the tornado struck. People in the other three households were the only ones who knew about the approaching tornado. They learned about it through their police scanners, which they listened to on a regular basis. To most people the tornado was a complete surprise. People learned of the danger by the noise of thunder and hail, the high wind, increasing darkness, the change in air pressure felt in their ears, and the electricity going off as the tornado moved through town. CONCLUDING REMARKS In Palestine, as in Saragosa, cable television blocked the dissemination of the warning. People were watching football games in Dallas and Atlanta, and those stations did not broadcast the tornado warning for Palestine. It is surprising to note from the author's preliminary findings that the local radio station was so ineffective. A much larger survey of the town's population is needed to ascertain the facts with greater accuracy and to evaluate the effects of social class on relative use of radio. Perhaps the reason that radio was so ineffective is that Westwood is a predominantly working-class, blue collar subdivision of the city of Palestine whose residents tend to listen less frequently to radio broadcasts. It is possible that better-off residents of other subdivisions of the city heeded the radio warnings to a much greater extent. Perhaps effective warning dissemination is a much more difficult problem than this author originally thought. In Saragosa, the author emphasized the cultural factors that blocked warning dissemination, but apparently cultural differences are only one of a number of factors contributing to the problem, which can be identified as our society 's seeming inability to use the considerable hazard predictive knowledge available to protect human lives. The author would argue that the present emphasis on weather research and on ways (e.g., through the development of more sophisticated radar) to increase the lead time between hazard detection and warning dissemination is valuable but sorely incomplete. Even with an hour's lead time, as in Palestine —which is extraordinary in the case of tornadoes—warning dissemination can break down at the county and city levels. It may be that increasing lead time in the future will not, in the end, protect lives in the absence of effective social and communications arrangements at the local and community/county levels. Methods for improving warning dissemination should be a top national priority. Demonstration projects are needed in areas of high tornado risk to assess how alternative means of dissemination work in practice. Such demonstration projects would have to be closely monitored and evaluated for

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NATURAL DISASTER STUDIES: SARAGOSA, TEXAS, TORNADO effectiveness by a central funding agency to ensure that the results could be compared and would complement each other. The results of these demonstration efforts should facilitate recommendations for national policy in this area. It is this author's recommendation that the National Research Council consider creating a panel of scholars in the field of disaster research to develop the technical specifications for such demonstration projects.