Bridges: Hurricanes have often brought misery to Texas
Summer in Texas brings memories of warm nights, the start of school, and the return of football. But it also means something else for Texans on the Gulf Coast: hurricane season. As the summertime seas cause the storms to build and swirl, a careful eye must turn to the weather to avoid the peril and destruction of the most powerful types of storms known to man. Through the years, Texas has been hit with incredibly powerful hurricanes.
Hurricanes that strike Texas form in the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico. A tropical depression forms when several storms come together into one rotating system. Once this system has sustained winds beyond 39 miles per hour, it becomes a tropical storm. It hits hurricane strength with sustained winds of 74 miles per hour. Hurricanes can form between March and December but usually are encountered between June and November. Hurricanes produce all types of weather-related disasters: deadly lightning, hail, powerful winds, torrential rains, and tornadoes.
During World War II, United States Army Air Force forecasters began naming storms, usually after their wives or girlfriends, to avoid confusion over multiple storms that may be traveling the seas at the same time. By the 1950s, civilian forecasters began using these names. A more formalized system of naming storms after women in alphabetical order began in 1952, with the names of men being added into the rotation by 1978. The introduction of weather satellites by the early 1960s greatly improved forecasting and tracking of hurricanes. In 1961, the Tiros-III satellite tracked the first hurricane from space. Reconnaissance flights by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration into the heart of hurricanes and Doppler radar systems introduced in the 1980s also help pinpoint potential landfall sites, wind intensity, and flooding dangers.
The earliest recorded hurricanes in Texas date to the years of Spanish exploration of Texas and the Gulf of Mexico. In the 16th century, no forecasting or tracking technology existed, posing extreme dangers for sailors who unknowingly ventured into the hearts of these storms. In fact, the word “hurricane” is derived from a Spanish word taken from the names of gods of storms and winds used by various natives of the Caribbean Sea and Gulf coast. The first recorded hurricane to strike Texas hit a Spanish merchant fleet just off Galveston Island in 1527. The rare November hurricane killed nearly 200 people.
Sparse populations left many storms unrecorded, but a 1766 hurricane in the Galveston area destroyed a Spanish mission on the Trinity River. Galveston was struck again in September 1818 with a hurricane that flooded the island under four feet of water and damaged almost every building on the isle.
In 1875, a hurricane hit the thriving port city of Indianola, not far from Port Lavaca. Nearly 300 people died. The community rallied and rebuilt, but an 1886 hurricane wrecked the city once again. Dozens more perished in the storm, but residents abandoned the city instead of rebuilding. The county courthouse was relocated to Port Lavaca the next year and the post office closed. Nothing remains of the city today, with the remnants pulled into the sea by erosion or covered by the sands.
The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 was the worst natural disaster in American History. The storm devastated the island, flooding it to a depth of nine feet. The entire city was wrecked, with more than 8,000 dead. The storm caused the city’s government to collapse, ultimately leading to an entirely new form of government to run the city and a new seawall to protect the island. A 1915 hurricane was the great test for the seawall. Though the storm was intense and 400 people died, the city was largely left intact.
Hurricane Alice in 1954 caused intense flooding along the Rio Grande Valley, with two feet of rain being dumped on Del Rio. Advances in forecasting helped prevent an even worse disaster from occurring from Hurricane Carla in 1961. More than a half million people were evacuated from the Texas coast in one of the most intense storms recorded up to that time. More than $325 million in damage was caused (more than $2.8 billion in 2021 dollars), and 31 people perished. Tropical Storm Claudette poured 54 inches of rain on Alvin in July 1979, the most rainfall in any 24-hour period in the nation’s history. In 1980, Hurricane Allen left 269 dead and more than $1 billion in damage (or more than $3 billion in 2021 dollars). Allen spawned deadly tornadoes as far inland as Austin.
Though landfall causes hurricanes to lose strength, the force of the storms often do not dissipate rapidly. Sometimes the remnants of these storms still have wind speeds near hurricane strength as far away as the Waco area, such as happened with Hurricane Carla in 1961 and Hurricane Alicia in 1983. Alicia left 13 dead and caused $2.6 billion in damage, the most expensive storm in state history to that point. Hurricane Ike would top that with 84 dead and nearly $20 billion in damage in 2008. Hurricane Harvey in 2017 flooded Houston with four feet of rain, a disaster of nearly biblical proportions.
Forecasting and tracking technology have improved immensely. With the proper planning and heeding the warnings of meteorologists, hurricanes do not need to cost lives.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a writer, historian and native Texan. He holds a doctorate from the University of North Texas. Bridges can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.