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Column 060115 Wall

Monday, June 1, 2015

Tornado Strikes Ciudad Acuña on Mexico's Northern Border

By Allan Wall

On the morning of May 25th, the Mexican border city of Ciudad Acuña (across the Rio Grande from Del Rio, Texas) was hit by a tornado with wind speed reaching up to 137 mph.

The Acuña tornado is the deadliest in North America thus far in 2015. It left 14 dead and hundreds injured.  It destroyed hundreds of homes and damaged hundreds more, affecting 4,000 residents.

One harrowing survival story from Ciudad Acuña is that of Jose Francisco and his wife Araceli, who were driving in a car which was picked up by the tornado. The vehicle was spun around several times while being thrown 650 feet through the air.  Their landing in a grassy area is probably what saved them, though the car was ruined.

For more information about the Acuña tornado, including photographs and videos, click here, here and here.

Geographically, Mexico is a diverse country, with one of the world's most diverse climates. The country is prone to a diversity of natural disasters. In different parts of the country there are hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts, volcanic eruptions, mudslides, forest fires, and floods.

Tornadoes are not that common in Mexico, although not unknown.  In 2007, there was a tornado in the border city of Piedras Negras (across the Rio Grande from Eagle Pass, Texas) that killed three.

A tornado, also called a cyclone or twister, is defined by the Collins English Dictionary as “a violent storm with winds whirling around a small area of extremely low pressure, usually characterized by a dark funnel-shaped cloud causing damage along its path.”

The English word “tornado” actually derives from the Spanish word tronada, meaning “thunderstorm.”  The term appears to have been borrowed from Spanish by English mariners navigating in tropical areas in the 1500s.  It  may have also been influenced by the Spanish tornar (to twist, to turn).

Curiously, the English word, with its modified spelling and meaning, has since been imported back into Spanish.

There have been tornadoes in every continent with the exception of Antarctica.  Click here to see a world map with the areas in which tornado activity is most likely shaded in orange.  Note that the border area of northern Mexico is shaded orange.

The U.S.A. is the country most likely to have tornadoes.  Click here for a U.S. map showing where they are most frequent.

“Tornado Alley” is an area in the central U.S. where tornadoes are the most frequent.

The exact delineation of Tornado Alley differs according to the source, and in fact the National Weather Service has never officially defined it.

One delineation of Tornado Alley puts it as ranging from Texas in the south to the Canadian prairies in the north, from Colorado in the west to Pennsylvania in the east.  Or click here for a smaller delineation, which ranges from Texas to South Dakota.

But Tornado Alley definitely includes Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.  In fact, when the term was coined in 1952, it was in reference to those three states.

Texas has more tornadoes than any other state, after all, it’s larger.  But Kansas ranks first and Oklahoma (my home state) ranks second in the number of tornadoes per square mile.

Tornadoes are quite destructive and also unpredictable. They may totally destroy one area of a city, but right across the street the houses are untouched.  A tornado might destroy part of a house but not the other part.

One thing’s for sure – you can’t fight a tornado.  The best refuge is underground, in a basement, cellar or storm shelter.

My great-grandfather moved to Oklahoma (from Illinois) at the age of 16, in the year 1893. That same year a tornado hit and he narrowly escaped from a house which was destroyed.  If he had perished, none of his descendants (including myself) would have been born.

For a dramatic Hollywood special effects representation of what a tornado can do, check out a 1996 movie called “Twister,” mostly filmed in Oklahoma.

There are some silly things in the movie, of course.  At the end, the protagonists (portrayed by Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt) are saved from a tornado by tying themselves to pipes, as if a tornado couldn’t pull pipes up! That’s totally bogus.

However, the special effects are quite good, and all the things the film shows tornadoes doing are things that tornadoes really do.  Tornadoes are powerful and devastating.

I wish the inhabitants of Ciudad Acuña well in their recovery from this tornado, and express my condolences for those who have lost friends and relatives.

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Allan Wall, an educator, resided in Mexico for many years.  His website is located at http://www.allanwall.info.

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