BY NORMAN ROZEFF
The recent “straight wind” event coupled with large hail that caused considerable physical damage to the communities of Granjeno and Madero were both unexpected and rare. The Valley is fortunate in that wind events, largely tornadoes, that devastate other parts of Texas as well as other major sections of the U. S. are an uncommon feature here.
Most damaging winds that do occur in the Valley are associated with hurricanes, and these do indeed occur with all too regular frequency. A second source and, even more frequent threats, are the high winds often associated with Valley thunderstorms and also the passage of strong cold fronts. The Valley is not immune to wind events, but the intervals of the most serious occurrences have been so long ago that they have been forgotten.
One of the first documented events occurred in Harlingen in 1909. Its story is as follows.
A settlement of fourteen families of the Seventh Day Adventist church convinces the State Mission Board of Fort Worth of that church to proceed with the erection of a house of worship, the first of its kind for that specific purpose. This first church building in Harlingen was to be a little one on the northeast corner of 4th and Jackson. Construction materials are purchased from the South Texas Lumber Co. on 5/5/09. The Rev. Mr. Montgomery and his wife were living in a tent, when the church was being built.
On May 26, 1909, a rare localized tornadic winds at night partially collapsed the incomplete church building, killing John Wesley Montgomery and severely injuring his wife who had taken shelter inside. For this reason the Adventists never completed their building and, in fact most members of the colony later left for California.
By public conscription, the building was later completed, so people in Harlingen might have another place to worship. It was shared by several denominations who had yet to construct their own sanctuaries. Later the structure was sold to the First Christian Church in 1918 for $400. Improvements to it cost $1,500. This congregation met there until its membership grew to the point that they had to meet in the Central Ward School auditorium.
The structure was later sold to the Grace English Lutheran Church for $2,500. After purchasing the property in late 1945, a Lutheran Service Center is established at 405 E. Jackson for armed service personnel here. With the war ending and the Army Airfield closed the center is discontinued 2/1/46 but used as a ELCA parish hall. Lastly, the building was sold to a private individual and moved to another site.
Between 1909 and 1912 the building served an additional and important purpose. It housed the school for Harlingen’s Anglo children. Of course, its diminutive size caused it soon to be too small for the growing population and students of the town.
Linda Horton transcribed another such event for the GenDisasters website.
It appeared in the Kansas City Star, Missouri newspaper of 9 May 1919 and was datelined Corpus Christi. It read:
TEXAS TORNADO TOLL, 15.
Farmhouses Were Demolished and Great Damage Done Crops.
H CORPUS CHRISTI, Tex., May 8. — Fifteen persons were killed early last night when one of the worst tornadoes ever experienced in Southwest Texas swept the lower Rio Grande Valley, demolishing farm houses and doing great damage to growing crops, according to telegrams received here tonight from the storm stricken area.
H MISSION, Tex., May 7 — Six persons were killed and one severely injured here last night when a tornado blew down a train shed in which the victims had taken shelter. J. L. Vick, his two small boys, and three Mexicans were killed. Mrs. Vick sustained a crushed hip, but her small baby escaped uninjured. The storm did damage to property estimated at $25,000.
From the Brownsvile Herald newspapers of 5/18 and 5/19 we learned more in slightly different reportage. In terms of human loss and property destruction the event which occurred on May 7, 1919 may have been the Valley’s worst ever.
A major tornado on that date swept from Mission eastward though the Donna area. Winds of up to 80 miles per hour were generated. In some spots hail to the depth of four inches was measured in Mission and 2 1/5 inches in Donna. Eleven people were killed around Mission along with a woman and two children near Donna. All were Mexican ethnics. Corn fields within the path of the storm were flattened. The overall cost of damages was put at one-half million dollars.
While wind storms are a rarity in the LRGV, they do occur and shouldn’t be overlooked. Tie-downs for mobile homes should be a regular feature. The sturdiness of business signage is another important consideration. Then there is home, school, and business architecture. It is obvious in recent years that style has taken prevalence over substance and safety.
In seeking to provide a Mediterranean/Spanish-type appearance a number of structure now have constructed over their entrances useless false-fronts that are perfect barriers for high winds to act upon. Caveat emptor.