During a regular old Texas summer (you know, the kind crouching outside your door waiting to assault you every mid-July to mid-October morning), most of us are more preoccupied avoiding sun damage and heatstroke than preparing for natural catastrophes. Instead of focusing on our sweat, perhaps we should remind ourselves that this is prime hurricane season, when a simple change of pressure can spell destruction.
Maybe a little hurricane trivia is in order. For instance, did you know that nearly 85 percent of the worst Texas hurricanes over the past century—since the 1900 storm that decimated Galveston and almost one fifth of its population—have all hit land during August or September? Or that the other 15 percent of Texas’ most vehement tropical tempests all debuted earlier in the summertime, kicking off the June 1 to November 30 official hurricane season for the Atlantic Basin (the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico) with a bang? Even more impressive are the rankings nationally. Try 8 of the 30 deadliest and 15 of the 64 most intense hurricanes in the continental United States during the twentieth century, each making devastating cameos somewhere along the Texas Gulf coast or reaching farther inside the state.
But why get acquainted (or reacquainted, if you have a good memory) with all these dried-up, slowed-down, long-passed cyclone giants? Because, just like all the fascinating Texans and Texas institutions profiled in the special issue of Texas Monthly this month, these storm personalities are still lingering, larger-than-life, deep within our state’s memory. And so, to track where we’ve been in hurricane history from the previous turn of the century to the summer of 2001, we should get caught up in the furor of these cataclysmic Lone Star legends.
1900: “The Galveston Hurricane”
Before the days of clever natural-disaster-nomenclature, this sea storm became widely known as “the deadliest hurricane disaster in U.S. history.” The Gulf tempest crept up on the unsuspecting people of Galveston, whose local paper on the morning of September 8, 1900, suggested that maybe “the tropical disturbance has changed its course or spent its force before reaching Texas.” As external reports began to reveal the actual magnitude of this cyclone, local weather official Isaac M. Cline—whose wife would number among the storm victims—took his horse-drawn cart to patrol the beaches, desperately begging citizens to flee low-lying areas. Yet before many Galvestonians could evacuate the island, bridges to the mainland began collapsing, leaving only downtown buildings as safe spaces for the few who could reach them.
By seven in the evening, storm winds had climaxed to gusty speeds of more than 120 miles per hour, with the city of Galveston transformed into a debris-ridden Atlantis, sunken underwater up to fifteen feet in places. From the shoreline inwards, two thirds of Galveston’s architecture had been annihilated, totaling approximately $700 million in damages by contemporary economic standards. However the most profound loss, earning this hurricane eternal infamy in Texas history, proved to be the mammoth final count of more than six thousand casualties inside the city alone, all from storm-related injuries or drownings. It wasn’t until almost a century later, in 1998, that the death toll was topped, when the Central American storm, Hurricane Mitch, resulted in ten thousand fatalities. Why was this Category 4 (“extreme damage” on the 1-5 Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale) storm so destructive? At the time, the media possessed few venues for reaching large populations with up-to-date information, much less dire warnings. Although, some resources were already available for storm tracking and prediction. Secondly, a monster of this magnitude had never before been experienced by islands along the Texas Gulf coast. And so, the Galveston Hurricane became a monitory story, inciting post-storm development of everything from insular city planning and ground-raising projects to more advanced weather-watching and weather-warning systems across the state.
1915: “Galveston No 2”
After fifteen years of recovery and prevention projects, Galveston and its new ten-foot-high, six-mile-long seawall seemed ready to brave any monsoon or tidal wave. But the city was not quite prepared for yet another unnamed hurricane to descend upon it with torrential waves twelve feet above normal that resulted in a six-foot-deep pool in the business district and the loss of 275 more lives.
1919: “Corpus Christi”
This Key West disaster swept into Corpus Christi September 14 after wreaking its fury on Florida. It brought sixteen-feet-above-normal tides and killed 287 people.
1957: “Hurricane Audrey”
The first major female-named Gulf hurricane, Audrey wrought upon the Texas-Louisiana border roughly as much devastation economically as the 1900 Galveston Hurricane. An early summer baby, she has been classified as one of the most powerful June storms ever in the Atlantic Basin. With the record high winds she let loose upon the coastline from Beaumont to Louisiana, Audrey assiduously earned her Category 4 ranking.
1961: “Hurricane Carla”
Sixty-one years to the day after Galveston’s debacle, another intense, indigenous Gulf Coast hurricane took aim at Texas and the surrounding coastal areas. Although Carla wielded 150 mile-per-hour winds and the ability to do $2 billion worth of damage—more than any of her predecessors—her casualty rate proved surprisingly low. More than half a century had passed since Isaac M. Cline’s horse-and-cart beach warnings, and great improvements had been made in emergency communication equipment. Thanks to the early evacuation drives of half a million coastal residents, only 46 Texans perished in the gaze of Carla’s evil eye.
1967: “Hurricane Beulah”
A daughter of the South Atlantic, Beulah’s September 17 entryway into the Gulf marked her departure from the African coast during her early life. Three days after her arrival, she made landfall, coming ashore between Brownsville and the mouth of the Rio Grande. Besides the $900 million in property damage, her fervor also impacted the landscape, cutting 31 new channels through Padre Island. Also impressive were her progeny: a host of sweeping tornadoes as well as a stunning 18-foot storm surge, made possible by the ten to twenty inches of rain South Texas experienced that day. Fifteen fatalities are attributable to Beulah’s wake.
1970: “Hurricane Celia”
Corpus Christi and the nearby area to its north got the brunt of Celia. Her methods were simple: high energy winds (termed down- or micro-bursts) powerful enough to toy with and then discard approximately $1.6 billion in property. That August 3 proved lucky to all but the eleven individuals who failed to benefit from the now-efficient, highly-evolved disaster prevention agencies.
1980: “Hurricane Allen”
Sporting a brilliantly low death toll, this premiere male-identified hurricane proved himself a poor planner in terms of destructiveness, wreaking havoc as a Category 5 hurricane while whirling out in the Gulf but hesitating before coming ashore in South Texas. Tiptoeing in north of Brownsville on August 9, Allen pressed his high winds and twelve-foot storm surges upon the least populated section of the Texas coast, receding with new cuts and washouts along Padre Island as his only legacy.
1983: “Hurricane Alicia”
Despite her relatively small stature as a Category 3 hurricane, Alicia somehow managed to cause more than $2.4 billion in damages in Galveston on August 18. She was the first tropical storm to grace the U.S. coast in more than three years, the longest national reprieve from hurricane-induced destruction during the twentieth century.
1988: “Hurricane Gilbert”
This fellow is the anomaly, insomuch as the trail he blazed did not include any stops upon the Texas Gulf coast. Gilbert took a more circuitous route, first across Mexico—where his damages ran exceptionally high—before then spawning 29 tornadoes in South Texas, resulting in $40 to $50 million in property damage and three deaths in San Antonio.
1999: “Hurricane Bret”
In preparation for this, the biggest Texas storm in nearly two decades, thousands of citizens had fled inland by August 22 of that year. Like his forefather Allen, Bret chose the near-empty stretch of shore between Brownsville and Corpus Christi to introduce himself to the Texas beach. After flooding the coastline with 25 inches of rain, he lost his momentum en route to the interior, trudging deflatedly into South Texas with little pomp or fanfare. After all the noise and show, Bret eventually proved to be full of little more than hot air.
Of course, who can forget El Niño? Although in some respects this Spanish “little boy” proved a demonic instigator of all types of strange weather, when it comes to hurricane activity, El Niño may in fact have comported himself slightly more angelically. The Pacific coastal warming of El Niño effects in Peru and Ecuador actually works here to stifle the maturation of young tropical storms. Hurricanes in the entire Atlantic Basin are greatly reduced in number by both El Niño and his feminine cooling counterpart, La Niña.
Although prediction and communication technologies have certainly improved since the dinosaur days of the first Galveston disaster—meaning we can now identify the names and faces of hurricanes before they can spot us—the frequency of storm appearances has not decreased over the century. They still sweep wickedly onto our landscape every two to three years, generally around this prime time in the season. So if you’re heading to the coast soon to do some late-summer beach-combing, be sure to take more than your sunscreen and flops. Take a radio, take care, and take your newfound knowledge of Texas hurricanes as your talisman, just in case you might need to ward off any future descendants of these whirling, churning demons.