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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Hurricane Rita and Texas Gulf Coast

Much of the Texas Gulf Coast has been over-developed by real estate developers. South Padre Island is the most obvious example of this trend. Here is a quote from the University of Texas at Austin that pretty much sums the situation up:


The more intense the coastal development, the greater the potential for destruction by hurricanes. Developers, vacationers, and condominium owners often assume an uncompromising attitude in facing the killer hurricanes, refusing to acknowledge that the Gulf beaches and barrier islands actually belong to the sea. A case in point is the intensive development of South Padre Island, a part of the 113-mile stretch of barrier sand between Corpus Christi and the Rio Grande. This development, with apartments and condominiums built on bulldozed dunes, has been built since Hurricane Beulah sliced the island into thirty-one segments in September 1967. Considering the pitfalls of predicting a hurricane's path and timing, forecasters cringe at the thought of the loss that a Beulah-like storm might cause in the same area today.


HURRICANE BEULAH, SEPTEMBER 1967

Hurricane Beulah was one of five severe hurricanes to affect the Texas middle coast in this century. Previous severe hurricanes in this area were those of Sept. 14, 1919; Aug. 26, 1945; Hurricane Carla (Sept. 11, 1961) and Hurricane Celia (Aug. 3, 1970). Hurricane Beulah's effects on the Texas middle coast were comparable in many respects to those of Hurricane Carla, with major exceptions in comparatively light flooding of the offshore islands, a very high number of tornadoes, and severe flooding after landfall. The storm began in the extreme eastern Caribbean near the island of Martinique on Sept. 7 and intensified to hurricane force on Sept. 8. Moving generally west-northwestward, Hurricane Beulah touched land in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and the northern Yucatan Peninsula before reaching the southwestern Gulf and heading for the Texas coast. Beulah weakened temporarily to only tropical storm intensity on September 12 and 13 as it crossed the central Caribbean and weakened slightly again as it moved over the land of the Yucatan Peninsula on Sept. 17, but regained strength rapidly in the southwestern Gulf and became a great hurricane as it approached the lower Texas coast on September 19. Like Carla, Beulah moved in a cycloidal path across the Gulf.

Beginning on the afternoon of Sept. 17, persons were advised to remain off the Gulf beaches of Padre, Mustang, and St. Joseph Islands. Immediate evacuation of Port Aransas and Mustang, Padre, and St. Joseph Islands was advised on the morning of Sept. 19. Most of the residents and others on the islands evacuated, including the personnel of Padre Island National Seashore. About 40 persons remained on the islands, including about 20 at Port Aransas. Immediate evacuation of Rockport and Live Oak and Lamar Peninsulas was advised in the evenimg of September 19. These areas and the towns of Ingleside and Aransas Pass were nearly completely evacuated. About 50 persons remained in Rockport. The evacuation of the University of Corpus Christi was advised on the morning of Sept. 20, and Corpus Christi Beach and parts of Flour Bluff were also evacuated. During the storm there were 30,000 people in shelters in Nueces and San Patricio Counties, including 6,000 in Corpus Christi.

After the landfall of Beulah near the mouth of the Rio Grande about 7 AM on Sept. 20, the highest winds diminished sharply, but the remaining storm was very persistent. It moved northward, carrying hurricane winds to south of Alice, stalled there and weakened during the night of Sept. 20, then moved west-southwest passing south of Laredo on the night of September 21, moved southwestward to near Monterrey on Sept. 22, and broke up in the mountains of northern Mexico. The remnant of the center moved southeastward over Mexico and reached the southwestern Gulf area again on Sept. 25.

As with Hurricane Carla, the Corpus Christi area was spared the major violence of the storm. At landfall winds near the center were about 136 miles an hour, and the central pressure, which had been as low as 27.26 inches (937 mb), was 28.07 inches, or 951 mb at Brownsville, which gave the storm a tide producing potential of about 15 feet. The highest winds and tides were expended against the coast about 20 miles north of Port Isabel. As the storm center moved over land southwest of Corpus Christi, generally higher winds occured in inland areas of the Coastal Bend than in coastal areas (See chart at bottom). Gale winds began at Corpus Christi International Airport at 10:30 AM on Sept. 20 and continued until 2 AM on Sept. 21, a duration of 15.5 hours, and hurricane winds occured in gusts between 5:57 PM and 8:40 PM on the 20th.

Tornadoes were extremely numerous with Beulah; a total of 95 have been estimated. Many of the funnel clouds were as small as 20 to 40 feet in diameter where they touched the ground, and they made only brief contact of a few seconds to less than a minute. They travelled generally from east to west or east-southeast to west-northwest, at times as fast as 60 miles per hour. In the Coastal Bend area there were fairly firm indications of about 40 tornadoes. Five were detected near the intense part of the storm on Sept. 20, three on radar as the storm approached in the morning, and two by observations and damaging effects in the evening at Ingleside and Fulton. On Sept. 22, far behind the storm center, a total of about 35 tornado indications were detected on radar within a radius of about 50 miles of Corpus Christi, and about 20 sightings were reported.

Damage from winds and tides was heavy on Corpus Christi Beach and in the Aransas Pass and Rockport-Fulton areas. The Fulton Tornado of Sept. 20 destroyed or badly damaged 20 to 25 buildings and caused three minor injuries. In contrast to the tornadoes reported later, this one and others in advance of the storm center evidenced the usual severely violent tornado characteristics. North of the Coastal Bend other violent tornadoes in advance of the storm killed three persons at Palacios on Sept. 20 and one at Louise and caused numerous injuries and considerable property damage. Electric service was cut off to 8000 customers in Corpus Christi. Two of three TV stations were off the air, one briefly. Salt water was moved up Nueces Bay at Calallen and forced shudaown of the Corpus Christi city water plants. Flooding from salt water along the bays was added to by the very heavy rainfall and runoff from the rainfall over land. The water level in the bays was slow to fall because of the copious runoff from the rains inland, even though Corpus Christi Pass and two other new channels were opened between the bays and the Gulf by the storm. At one time the water level in the bays was about two feet higher than that in the Gulf, and the outflow through channels was very heavy. Many persons living in low areas were homeless for the several days of persistent high water. Wind damage, other than from torndoes, was widespread but mostly not severe to trees, shrubs, telephone and power lines, signs, windows, trailers, boats, beach cottages, and piers and other beach installations. Damage to industries was minor; most of their loss was in shut-down and start-up coasts and in lost production. The damage directly attributable to the storm in the Coastal Bend, not counting the subsequent flooding, was of the order of $20,000,000. There were no fatalities in the Coastal Bend area.

Most of the damage from Beulah was from the floods following the storm's extremely heavy rains. Rainfall attributable to the storm totalled 10 to 20 inches over a widespread area of southern Texas, and amounts ranged up to nearly 30 inches. Adding also to the flooding potential of these rains was the near saturation of the ground over wide areas resulting from earlier rains in August and September. All-time record floods occurred on all Gulf drainage streams and the Nueces and Frio watersheds except for the extreme upper portions. Major flood warning were issued on Sept. 19 and continued through Sept. 25. The stage on the Nueces River 2 miles south of Three Rivers reached an all-time high of 49.20 feet of Sept. 23. The previous highest stage was 46.0 feet, which occurred on September 18, 1919 and was also in a flood following a severe hurricane. An all-time highest flood also occurred below Wesley Seale Dam to Nueces Bay and was nearly 3 feet higher than the previous highest flood. Many towns, especially Three Rivers, Sinton, and Falfurrias, were severely flooded. Water remained for months on poorly drained areas of the Coastal Plains south of Corpus Christi. The total dollar damage from the floods is estimated more than $100,000,000.

THE GREAT GALVESTON HURRICANE, SEPTEMBER 1900

The Great Galveston Hurricane showed on September 7-8th, 1900. It towers alone as the worst natural disaster in the United States in terms of lives lost; the most frequently used estimate of the death toll is 8,000. The potential of this disaster had been shown in the destructions of Santiago in 1844, Clarksville/ Baghdad in 1867, and Indianola in 1875 and 1886. At the time, the population of Galveston was near 30,000. Most of its structures were wood frame built just above ground level and supported by pilings.

A new innovation helped relay details about what the storm did in the Caribbean Islands; it was known as the wireless telegraph. Word has been received of a hurricane which struck Trinidad and destroyed almost all the structures on that island. Word of the storm's passing over Cuba and moving northwest into the Gulf of Mexico in the direction of Texas has been relayed to the Weather Bureau office on the Island. Sailors began to arrive in port telling of horrific weather offshore.

On the 6th, a hurricane watch was posted along the Gulf Coast westward to New Orleans. By the 7th, it was extended further to include Texas. Driving rain began at 4 am on the 7th. At 9 am, large waves began to pound the shores of Galveston Island. Winds began to increase as high, fish-scale shaped clouds (known as altocumulus) began to move inland. The pressure fell rapidly at the weather office. This caused them to hoist a hurricane flag - their version of a hurricane warning in those days. This action caused about 20,000 to evacuate, which saved many lives.

Many people ignored the warning. Gentry from Houston rode out to the Island by train to witness the spectacle of the huge waves crashing at the coast. Through the morning of the 8th, greater numbers of people crowded the beaches. Isaac Cline of the Weather Bureau could not believe what was happening. He took matters into his own hands and rode down the beach in a horse-drawn buggy with his brother, warning people to go back to the mainland - in effect, making him a modern day Paul Revere. Unfortunately, few listened. The weather, however, changed their tune as a wooden pagoda along the beach and its associated boardwalk became mere driftwood before the crowd's eyes. Then they began to disperse. For many, it turned out to be far too late. A steamship broke free of its moorings and went on a rampage, destroying all three bridges to the mainland.

Winds of 100 mph blew away the anemometer at the Weather Bureau. Winds gusting over 125 m.p.h. sent raging waters covering Galveston Island by 15 feet just after 3 am, with additional waves much higher on top of the storm surge. As flood waters rose, people fled towards the center of the island, which had slightly higher ground. This turned out to be fruitless, as it merely delayed the inevitable. The force of the wind threw boards, chairs, and tree limbs through the air. Pebbles and chards of glass became deadly missiles. When the water began rising, Harry Claiborne, keeper of the Bolivar Point Lighthouse, fled to the safety of his workplace. People soon after began pounding on the door, begging to be let into the lighthouse. The tower was soon crammed with over 100 people, many of which were from a train stranded in the rising waters. After a while, the big door to the lighthouse was hidden under 30 feet of water. The lighthouse survived the storm (Roberts 86-88).

Wooden buildings floated off their pilings and smashed into one another. As houses disintegrated, unfortunate occupants were thrust into the water to drown. More than 2600 homes were demolished. Twelve square blocks, comprising 3/4 of the city, were completely wiped out of existence. All bridges across the bay were destroyed, along with 15 miles of railroad track. All communications with the mainland were gone.

The British freighter Kendall Castle was moored offshore. Several ships were driven against her. But it wasn't until the Norwegian freighter Gyller nudged against the Castle when it went on "a wild ride" over the Halfmoon Shoal lighthouse, pounding it into the sand, on the way to Texas City (Cipra 185). Very little damage was done at Sabine Pass however, showing how small the core of this storm was. Thirty million dollars in damage occurred.

Fewer than 2000 of those remaining on the island survived. The weather office chief survived, but his wife drowned. The Bolivar Point Lighthouse became the focal point of relief activities after the storm. The lighthouse over the ensuing days let people in the area know that at least one thing still worked on the island, as it helped storm-battered ships return to shore. Martial law was declared, with looters being shot on sight.

Mustang Island also saw many bodies litter the beach. Corpus Christi had a stiff northeast breeze and exceptional fishing. In Flour Bluff Harbor, millions of red, trout, and mullet infested the waters, avoiding the hurricane. Local residents feasted on tarpon and helped Galveston with over $1000 being raised for food and clothing. After the storm moved inland, it accelerated north to the Great Lakes, still carrying 70 mph winds. It then moved across Canada, the North Atlantic, and Northern Europe before finally dying in Siberia.

A massive public works project was undertaken to raise the city's elevation and build a 3 mile long, 17 foot high, concrete seawall. This has, to date, prevented a tragedy of similar proportions from occurring in Galveston. The city never regained its importance as a major port due to the construction of the Houston ship channel; quite similar to what happened in Indianola 14 years before. As the population swells along the coast, construction has begun to expand into areas not protected by the seawall. Those that have not learned from history are doomed to repeat it! See Louisiana Hurricane History for more details on this storm.

SOME OTHER HURRICANES THAT HIT TEXAS

On August 16, 1915, a large and violent storm struck Galveston, Texas. Even though a seawall ten-feet high was built after the 1900 hurricane, this storm caused tides 12 feet above normal. These tides flooded the central business district to a depth of more than six feet. Unfortunately 275 people lost their lives from a combination of the high water and strong winds.

On Sept. 14, 1919, an unnamed storm became the fourth most intense and deadly storm of the 20th century. It passed near Key West, Fla., on September 9-10. It was a slow moving storm that reached an intensity of 27.37 inches (927 mb) in the vicinity of the Dry Tortugas, islands in south Florida, 65 miles west of Key West. Ten ships were lost at sea accounting for more than 500 of the approximately 800-900 deaths. This hurricane continued slowly westward and finally, on September 14, the center moved inland south of Corpus Christi, Texas. At that point, the tides rose 16 feet above normal and another 287 lives were lost.

Hurricane Audrey struck the Gulf coast in 1957. Audrey made landfall near the Texas-Louisiana border on June 27, 1957. Its core pressure deepened considerably beginning 5 hours before landfall. 390 Americans died as the result of a storm surge in excess of 12 feet, which inundated the shallow coast of Louisiana, south of Lake Charles.

In 1961 Hurricane Carla became the largest and most intense Gulf Coast hurricane in decades. On September 8, 1961, Carla's winds took aim at the Texas coast. By the 9th of September, Carla's winds and rains had impacted the entire Gulf of Mexico causing damage along all Gulf Coast states.

On September 9th. 1961, the largest mass evacuation to that date took place, when an estimated 500,000 residents of coastal areas and barrier islands off Texas and Louisiana were evacuated to higher ground. As Carla approached Texas on the 10th, winds near the eye of the storm reached 150 mph. Government aircraft flying in the storm indicated a central pressure of 931 mb just before Carla struck the coast. Incredibly, only 46 people lost their lives as a result of early warnings. Severe damage along the Texas Gulf coast was magnified by unusually prolonged winds, very high tides and major flooding from heavy rains.

REFERENCES

Handbook of Texas Online, s.v. "GULF OF MEXICO," http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/GG/rrg7.html (accessed September 21, 2005).

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, http://www.srh.noaa.gov/crp/docs/research/hurrhistory/Beulah/beulah.html
(accessed September 21, 2005).

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Weather Service, http://www.srh.noaa.gov/lch/research/txlate19hur.htm
(accessed September 21, 2005).

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