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Man killed as tornado hits south Texas near the Gulf coast, damaging dozens of homes

Laguna Heights, Texas tornado
Posted at 6:36 PM, May 13, 2023

LAGUNA HEIGHTS, Texas — One person was killed when his mobile home was crushed as a powerful tornado tore through a community near the southern tip of Texas before dawn Saturday, damaging dozens of residences and knocking down power lines, authorities said.

At least 10 others were hospitalized, including two people who were listed in critical condition, said Tom Hushen, the emergency management coordinator for Cameron County. Many residents also suffered cuts and bruises.

The tornado hit at about 4 a.m. as most people were in their homes asleep in the unincorporated community of Laguna Heights, located on the mainland across from South Padre Island, off the Gulf of Mexico. The county has among the highest poverty rates in Texas and is dotted with substandard housing.

There was no advance warning. Instead, the first warning of a tornado “went out at the same time it was touching ground,” said Barry Goldsmith, a warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Brownsville.

“With hurricanes we have the benefit of getting some advance warning; we know it’s probably on its way,” Eddie Treviño Jr., the Cameron County judge, said during a Saturday press conference. “With a tornado, like Barry mentioned, it’s not a common scenario unless we have a hurricane/tropical cyclone in the area. So, we didn’t have the benefit of a warning.”

“The hour didn’t help,” Treviño added.

Roberto Flores, 42, died after being “basically crushed as a result of the damage to his mobile home,” Treviño said.

The storm was clocked with wind speeds of 86-110 mph (138-177 kph) and was categorized as an EF1 tornado, according to the weather service. It lasted only about two to four minutes but it ravaged the area.

As many as 60 homes were damaged. The county judge signed a disaster declaration, and a temporary shelter in the nearby city of Port Isabel was providing help to 38 people.

“Apparently it went straight through that community,” said county sheriff Eric Garza. “Individuals don’t want to leave their houses because they’re afraid that somebody will go in there and start stealing stuff.”

Garza said his department is helping provide security for the area, and Treviño said officials were considering a nighttime curfew to help victims of the storm who fear their properties will be looted if they leave their property.

Laguna Heights is about 20 miles (32 kilometers) northeast of the U.S.-Mexico border at Brownsville and is not prone to having tornados, although this spring has been active, said weather service meteorologist Angelica Soria. The area is also gearing up for the start of hurricane season.

The Texas tornado follows an outbreak of dozens of twisters in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado that caused damage but no reported deaths.