On the month of September of the year 1955, Tampico’s history was marked by a tragic event known as “The Tragedy of 1955”. It all started with the constant showers of the season combined with the water flow brought by Hurricane Gladis, the direct lash of Hurricane Hilda, the torrential rainfall and the water flow both result of Hurricane Janet. All together they registered the most amazing flood ever known in the last century. As a consequence, the region, principally Tampico, was declared a disaster zone.
It all began on the month of June when the heavy rainfall was felt in the zone, which increased little by little the water flow of rivers and lagoons. To make things worse, on September the 3rd Hurricane Gladis, in spite of having dissolved on the Gulf of Mexico, produced great precipitations in the region that provoked flood in the lower part of Tampico.
By mid September the press announced the formation of Hurricane Hilda, an event that did not alarm the population since they thought it would not strike that hard or there was a slight possibility that it would. It was all far away from the truth.
It was until 23:00 hrs. that the Pemex radio informed that the cyclone would enter Tampico in a few hours. Unfortunately, the population was asleep. Between 2a.m. and 3 a.m. of September 19, 1955 that Hurricane Hilda touched Tampico reaching winds over 270 km/hr, moving inland to the west, destroying every town and ranch in its way of the Tamaulipas, Veracruz and San Luis Potosí Huasteca. Its vertex or center of the hurricane went past Tampico between 4:15 a.m. and 5:50 a.m. of that same early morning. The barometer registered a maximum atmospheric depression of 728 millimeters. Hundreds of houses and huts were not able to resist the terrible winds produced by the hurricane’s charge while the number of victims increased to 11,432 people.
During the hours in which Hurricane Hilda took its anger over this port, many ships, ferries, boats and all types of vessels suffered great damage when their ropes tore and hit each other. Some of them were dragged by the strong current all the way to the Escolleras and even to open sea. By the end of the hurricane’s rage, Tampico was left with no communication and electric energy affecting its port area and industrial installations.
The precipitation was of less intensity than the one provoked by Hurricane Gladis, but the great swells brought by this cyclone caused major overflowing of rivers and lagoons, which considerably aggravated the situation in the port and in the region.
On September 29th, even though the population was not fully recovered by the astonishment caused by the fury of Hurricane Hilda, another hurricane named Janet entered the zone by Tuxpam, Veracruz. It dissolved after crashing with the Sierra Madre Oriental and as a result unloaded a big amount of water over the basin of the Pánuco and Pantepec Rivers as well as its tributaries, making its bed grow. It is estimated that its current traveled 18 mi/hr carrying a great quantity of trees and branches that destroyed anything on its way and causing terrible floods in Tuxpam and Tampico.
Authorities warned the population about the danger, but they never thought that there would be a flood of such magnitude. Rivers and lagoons were overflowing as well as La Esperanza Dam which flooded over 50% of the city. The strong current lifted houses from their foundations and formed a barrier which obstructed the free flow of water, reaching levels that were never seen. The waters of the Pánuco River joined with the ones of the Carpenter’s Lagoon and disappeared the adjacent neighborhoods. The municipal markets were totally covered, the water reached the Liberty Square flooding the commercial zone. The streets were rivers with a strong current and the lower parts of the city were completely flooded. People had to search for shelter in roofs.
The flood’s crest registered a maximum mean of 5.88 over the tide in Tampico, exceeding 1.3 meters the maximum level and beating the flood in 1933. The devastation was reflected in approximately 6,400 Km2 and affected more than 250,000 people all inhabitants of Tampico, Cd. Madero, the southern region of Veracruz and some towns of San Luis Potosí. The number of victims increased to 52,530 people in Tampico, which represented 50% of the total population. Although Cd. Madero also suffered the rage of the hurricane that shattered most of the homes, the flood only affected the terrains near the Pánuco River. Thanks to that it could provide shelter to more that 30,000 victims.
To make things worse, the lack of communications, electric energy and drinking water made this situation a chaotic one which deserved the adjective “great disaster”. The state of the neighboring towns was really dramatic with wrecked highways such as the case of Pánuco, Ver. where medicines and supplies had to be taken to its inhabitants by boat jeopardizing all the dangers the river encountered. Agriculture and livestock farming were very affected and the loss of livestock during this disaster estimated 20,000 heads.
The citizens of Tampico tried to leave the city which was almost impossible since it was totally isolated by land. Its limits reached to what we know today as the Golden Zone. The water reached 4 meters at “7 Leguas” and people had to cross by boat to get to the airport which was not flooded since it is located on higher land. The way through the State of Veracruz which was made by ferry was impossible due to the strong current and what it brought with it. The highway Tampico – Monterrey was obstructed as well as one Tampico – Valles.
Right away after this tragedy was unleashed, the President Don Adolfo Ruiz Cortines, the Secretary of Hydraulic Resources Ing. Eduardo Chávez, the Governor of Tamaulipas Lic. Horacio Terán arrived to the city and together with the Municipal President Manuel A. Ravizé coordinated efforts with the Marines and the Mexican Army to provide immediate help to the population.
Young Marines dedicated their time to rescue people that were trapped in the rooftops of buildings. The also helped to transport supplies and drinking water and carried out surveillance in endangered zones. To relief the pain caused by the cyclones and floods, the Mexican Red Cross was in charge of the hard task of 40,000 recovery treatments, medical appointments and vaccinations.
Priceless help was provided by the American Red Cross presided by Mr. Carlos Paterne who was assisted by huge C-46 airplanes of the USA Air force. Daily, they realized between 2 and 3 trips bringing assorted merchandise with an approximate value of $78,000 USD (almost one million pesos) from Harlingen, TX, which was designated as temporary base for this assistance operations and relieved the anxiety of the victims.
Another help received worth to mention was the one offered by the USA Army whose aircraft carrier named Saipan commanded by Edward Miles, Commander of the USA 5th Navy District with a base in Panama. The carrier arrived on October the 1st anchoring 8 miles away from Tampico. Its first task was to recognize the affected zone together with Commander Luis Cueto Ramírez, Commander of the VIII Military Zone. Then, a meeting took place to determine the following actions in coordination with the American and Mexican troops and the 14 helicopters brought by the aircraft carrier.
Their base was installed in Tampico’s Country Club. From the first day, the helicopters flew over the damaged zones by the basins of the Pánuco and Tamesí Rivers and took supplies and medicines to those who were isolated. Later on, the aircraft carrier Siboney and the destroyer Basset arrived to the zone.
As a recognition to the priceless help given by the USA Army to this terrible event, on October 18th of 1955 the Aztec Eagle, the maximum Mexican trophy, was given to Rear Admiral Milton Edward Miles. The Marines Sub Secretary Ing. Alfonso Poiré Ruelas was in charge of the ceremony in representation of the President of Mexico. Among the witnesses there was General Cueto, Senator Manuel Guzmán Willis and as honor guests the Ambassador of the USA in Mexico Mr. Frances Whit and Mrs. Wilma Miles.
By the time the water level decreased there was a terrible outlook: shattered homes, destroyed streets, ruined industries, animal and human corpses, rubble and a huge amount of scraps all over the place. Fortunately, they did not cause any more damage thanks to the intervention of the Healthiness Secretary that stopped any type of outbreaks.
It is hard to know the exact number of human loss during this catastrophe. Some estimate ten of twelve thousand were the number of dead people, but the total will never be known since many were dragged to the sea and most of them had to be cremated in order to prevent outbreaks.
Those were days of anxiety and pain for the citizens of Tampico and the neighboring cities, days that left an emotional scar in every affected person, but also in all of those who participated with their effort and willingness in the rescue team. Thanks to this received help, to the hard work done by the authorities and the strength and enthusiasm of Tampico’s citizens that the reconstruction of the city and the damaged regions could be finished in less time that what it was expected.
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