Friday, July 29, 2011

Memorable Storms while a student at Texas A&I - Revisitng Hurricanes Beulah and Celia and the night the Javelina Stadium Lights were blown down

With Hurricane season in full swing, one can't help but reminisce about storms that made their way into South Texas and, in particular, the Kingsville-Corpus Christi area. Many people were disappointed with the impact of Tropical Storm Don this past July. Don simply fizzled (evaporated?) under the Texas heat. Wow. But I venture to say, we were fortunate. When conditions are right, a storm churning in the Gulf of Mexico can mean death and destruction. We should count our blessings and look toward the Gulf warily as the Hurricane Season pushes on.

Many storms have hit the Kingsville-Corpus Christi area. Two in particular, left their mark - Hurricanes Beulah and Celia. Beaulah struck in 1967 and Celia in 1970. They were devastating killer storms, each with its own characteristic that left marks on South Texas for generations. Both times, I spent the eve of the storm in Kingsvile at then Texas A&I University, and both times I was surprised to what I heard or found when I woke up in the morning.

Both times, I felt lucky to have survived and realized that the fury of nature has no equal and must be respected.

Hurricane Beulah was a massive rain storm that caused unprecedented flooding in South Texas, forming lakes that lasted 20 years or more and impacting the area for weeks and months before things returned to normal.

It tracked through the Caribbean, struck the Yucat√°n peninsula of Mexico as a major hurricane, and moved west-northwest into the Gulf of Mexico, briefly gaining Category 5 intensity. It was the strongest hurricane during the 1967 Atlantic hurricane season. The hurricane made landfall in northeastern Mexico with winds near 160 mph.

The storm then weakened before moving into Texas as a major hurricane. Hurricane Beulah made landfall south of the mouth of the Rio Grande as a Category 5 storm. It then meandered over land with Category 3 conditions until it fizzled out Sept. 22. It spawned 115 twisters across Texas, which established a new record for the highest amount of tornadoes produced by a hurricane to hit the Gulf Coast. Due to its slow movement over Texas, Beulah led to significant flooding and caused more than $1 billion in damages. There were 58 fatalities. Three fatalities could be attributed to flooding in Corpus Christi. There were deaths reported from Mexico, the Rio Grande Valley, Corpus Christi and the deep Brush Country of South Texas.

Beulah was strange and refused to die. I remember pelting rain for more than 24 hours, non-stop. I mean RAIN. Big drops constantly splashing into the streets at a steady consistent pace that was unusual for this area. It rained all over South Texas for five consecutive days as Beulah moved at a snail's pace up the area. We wondered, "Is it ever going to stop?" Refugees from the Rio Grande Valley somehow made their way up to Kingsville, where hundreds found refuge in the university's dorms and buildings. Classes were cancelled for days. Of course, the students who stayed behind found ways to entertain themselves and for days played touch football in the standing water in front of Nierman Hall.

But, the university was not spared from Beulah's wrath. The A & I Citrus Center at Weslaco lost 80 to 95 per cent of the fruit crop with damage estimated at $29,000. The most notable damages on campus were uprooted trees and shrubbery. The Javelina Stadium lights were blown down to about a 30-degree angle and had to be removed within the week. Due to the extensive cost of replacing the lights during the semester, all home football games were held in the afternoon. That year the Javelinas won the Lone Star Conference championship with a thrilling come-from-behind 23-21 win over rival Southwest Texas State before more than 15,000 fans at sun-lit Javelina Stadium. John Kardow kicked a 28-yard field goal with 1:18 left to play to seal the victory. The Hogs finished 9-0 that year, which will forever be known as The Year Hurricane Beulah Blew the Javelina Stadium Lights Down.

Beulah was indeed memorable for me and my friends. The night before Beulah hit the Kingsville area, my cousin Adan and I spent the night in my dorm room in Cousins Hall. By now it was a category 3 storm. We had volunteered to stay behind to help the Army ROTC unit feed the refugees who were fleeing from major flooding the Rio Grande Valley. We played it as safe as we could, taping windows and moving away from any doors. That night we could hear the wind howl through the university and the rain, the rain, constantly falling on campus. We woke up in the morning, about 5, and the tree outside was down. We saw the water rising to the steps and just wondered when it would stop. Meanwhile, the cafeteria - now the Conner Museum - had become a temporary refuge. Sandbags had been packed around it to avoid the flooding. We were assigned to kitchen duty and informed to make chicken salad sandwiches. Someone had stayed up all night preparing the meal. There was no way out any more. All of Kingsville was flooded. Outside, we could hear helicopters and trucks scurrying around the area. We heard that Dr. Manning was outside Manning Hall, protecting it, making sure no one could get in. There were reports he had a rifle with him and he was looking for looters. We also heard he was letting people in for safe refuge. Our ROTC officers just laughed and didn't worry about a thing. After all, it was Dr. Manning.

Then, we heard we were stranded. The campus had been cut off, becoming an island. Farm road 141 leading to the cutoff to Alice and Falfurrias had six-feet of water over it. The King Ranch had moved its cattle now, south, where the waters were receding. Bishop was closed and the road to Riviera was impassable. There was no way out for three days. Phone communications were down. The winds had been strong enough to tangle the Javelina Stadium lights, but it wasn't the wind that downed the telephone and power lines. It had rained so much that even the slightest Gulf breeze would knock the poles down as the ground was saturated beyond any thing we had ever seen in South Texas. The ground was just a dark-brown mush. An "emergency" phone line was set up for the refugees and for the parents of students who stayed on campus to contact their children. My family finally contacted me. They were coming to pick us up. They said there was only one lane of traffic from San Jose to Kingsville and that it would take quite a while to get here. We waited at Cousins Hall. We were glad to leave. On the way back west toward Hebbronville, we could not believe our eyes. The King Ranch fence had water to the top wire. One lane of traffic moved west, as slow as a turtle crossing a lonely Texas highway.

Hurricane Beulah would not soon be forgotten. The lower Rio Grande Valley, the four-county region that comprises deep South Texas, was inundated with torrential rains. Rain also doused the Brush Country areas of Kenedy, Jim Hogg, Duval, Webb, Kleberg, Brooks, Jim Wells, Nueces, Bee and San Patricio counties. Within a 36-hour period it dropped more than 27 inches of rain near Beeville. Falfurrias received more rain from Beulah than it normally records during one year. Areas south of Laredo, San Antonio, and Matagorda were isolated for more than a week due to the resulting flooding. On September 28, President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared twenty-four counties in southern Texas a disaster area. During a four-day period Beulah rained and reigned over South Texas, daily totals of rain averaged more than 20-inches per day. It was estimated that more than 85 inches of rain drenched different areas of South Texas. In these days, when drought is the key word and many would welcome even the slightest of tropical storms to the area, it seems incredible that Beulah could dump that much rain in only a week - more than 80 inches in some areas. Beulah was a wet storm. But, aside from the immediate tragedy, Beulah's rains helped nourish South Texas for years. Maybe it's time for another "wet one?"

If Beulah was a "rain storm," than Celia was a "wind storm." On Aug. 3, 1970, it roared into Corpus Christi with a fury that city had not seen since the 1919 storm and has not experienced since. Winds hit 130+ mph. It spawned dozens of tornadoes. Its devastation was clear, once the morning sun hit what had once been the Sparkling City by the Sea.

My friends and I spent the night the storm hit Corpus Christi at our rent house down Santa Gertrudis Ave. on 4th St. We didn't expect much from the storm. We had heard, from TV news reports, that it was "small and losing strength." Hurricane Celia developed from a tropical wave moving through the Caribbean, becoming a tropical depression on July 31 and a tropical storm on August 1. In the Gulf of Mexico, it rapidly became a major hurricane, but weakened steadily to an 85 mph hurricane. It didn't seem too dangerous, so few people evacuated the area and we, down in Kingsville, felt safer than a sparrow on a nest high on a South Texas oak. On August 3, it again rapidly strengthened to a major hurricane, this time reaching 130 mph winds prior to its Texas landfall. Celia would kill 20 people.

Back in Kingsville, we went about our normal routine - class, dinner, dates, TV, drink and tell tall tales. The night was tranquil. We heard from TV that the storm would hit the Corpus Christi area late that night or early in the morning. Little did we know that the small compact storm would gain strength and would be one of the most powerful storms to hit the area. The morning of Aug. 3 was quiet in Kingsville. Kingsville had been spared but there was no one on the streets. It was sunny, but there was an ominous feeling around. We woke up and turned on the TV. Nothing. We turned to our favorite radio stations - KUNO 1400 AM in Spanish and KEYS 1440 AM with rock 'n' roll tunes. Nothing. We scanned the radio looking for a station. Finally, through the static came the loud and clear voice of Andy Cook on Kingsville radio station KINE 1330 AM. It would be the only station on the air in South Texas for three days and the only source of information. The first words we heard were: "Corpus Christi has been destroyed . . ." Cook's crisp and definitely distinct radio voice went on to describe the horror the residents of Corpus Christi and the upper Coastal Bend area like Aransas Pass and Mathis felt. He had a straight connection to the Department of Public Safety and the National Guard that had been called up - within 24 hours - to prevent looting and set up spots for people to be treated medically and distribute ice and food. For at least three days, Andy Cook was the voice of South Texas to all those in the immediate Corpus Christi area. Eloquently, and with little rest, he told the story of the hurricane's impact. It was a story of sheer destruction, death and desolation.

The statistical toll taken by Celia was nothing short of staggering: The American Red Cross estimates now that 65,000 families suffered losses; the area took property damage totaled at $500 million in 1970 dollars; almost 9,000 homes were destroyed and some 55,600 homes suffered damage ranging from major to minor. Crop losses -- the storm hit during a harvest season -- were in the millions of dollars. More than 4,000 people were forced to seek shelter. There were many deaths - 20 became the official number.

But added to that toll in numbers was simply the shock for thousands of residents of having their homes, their livelihood, their possessions, perhaps their life's work, wiped out in one terror-filled August evening.

The Corpus Christi Caller-Times reported on the eeriness of the storm like this: "When darkness came -- as dark and as quiet a night as ever fell on Corpus Christi -- those who had survived were simply thankful to be alive. There was no electric or telephone service in many area cities. There was no place to buy ice."

Slowly, we got word from inside Corpus Christi. DPS officers would come to eat at the Round Table, a popular eating spot on 14th Street at the time, or stop for burgers and sandwiches at the Gridiron or Young's Pizza near the university on Santa Gertrudis. As they exchanged shifts, the shared the horror stories. We heard that one of our favorite watering holes when we would go to Corpus Christi for "fun" was giving away free beer while it was still cold, the day after the storm. The place was called Vernon's and still exists today. It was one of the few "bright" stories in the gloom that followed.

We were shocked. The roads to Corpus Christi were blocked. Many of us had family there and wanted to go help, but no one was getting past Robstown on the south and west and the Chapman Ranch entry was flooded and guarded vigilantly by the Texas Army National Guard. No one, except in an official capacity was getting in or out of Corpus Christi. We felt we had to make contact. We got an idea. We had press passes for working with the university newspaper - The South Texan. I even had one that was "approved" or "sanctioned" by the Texas Department of Public Safety. Surely, they would let us in. Kingsville still had electricity so we loaded up our ice chests with clean pure ice. Just in case, we filled one with Lone Star and Schlitz beers. We bought some bread, baloney, cheese and other canned goods and headed north to Corpus Christi. Sure enough, we got through. We had cameras and credentials and qualified as official journalists.

We drove slowly down Highway 44, now going east. We worked our way toward Leopard Street, Old Brownsville Road and Morgan. My uncle lived on Old Brownsville Road. It was a beautiful house with brick all around. Behind him, on Guatemozin St., lived the rest of the family. We passed by slowly, and saw nothing. I remember telling my friends, "I don't see my uncle's house." We were in area just across from Del Mar Tech. There was debris everywhere. We circled next to what used to be the old airport, now the state school and drove down Guatemozin. There was my other family's home. An oak tree had pierced the roof and was clearly stuck in the living room, its branches reaching, so it seemed, to all the rooms in the house. They were so glad to see me, us. We had come with supplies. "Mira, es Memito (Look, it's Manuel Jr.)," I remember Tio Beto shouting to the cheers and anxious eyes of other family members who all had distant looks on their faces as they set outside in what was left of the lawn in the blistering August Texas heat. They, honestly, did not know how they were going to survive. All were huddled around what they now fondly called "the tree house," as if they were waiting for help. That day, Aug. 5, we were the help. They were so grateful for the ice, especially, and all the canned goods and baloney and bread we had brought. They invited us to eat. We politely declined. This trip was for them. We even let them have the ice chest full of beer - at least 36 cans (maybe Adan drank one or two). My uncle Beto savored one and then said most of the neighborhood cantinas down Port and Leopard had been "wiped out" and that some "borachos" were picking up cans of beer on the street. "Now we can enjoy our beers in our tree house," he said smiling, letting out a roaring laugh we had always associated him with. He had such a good nature. I miss him. In the turmoil, it was good to hear him laugh. We helped clean up a bit and then said good bye. We took pictures for our story. They ran that week in The South Texan. Celia, was truly devastating to Corpus Christi and, just as Andy Cook said that gloomy morning, "Corpus Christi ha(s)d been destroyed.

As we drove around town taking pictures for our story, we came to realize the full extent of the disaster and damage. The people that we saw certainly felt despair. There was debris, and rubble all around. TV towers had been knocked down. Downtown was a like a war zone. Windows and doors had been ripped from skyscrapers. The once beautiful bay front had palm tree leaves and limbs littered all around and it seemed as if Corpus Christi Bay had vomited on the city's prized street - Ocean Drive.

It would take weeks, make that months, of clean-up of downed trees, restoring of power, clearing debris, of toiling in the late summer heat, of waiting in long lines to obtain precious ice before any semblance of normality would return.

We came back to Kingsville, thankful that none of our family members were killed or injured. We had heard what they had to do, each one of them, to survive. Their stories seemed surreal. One of my uncles said that their entire house was lifted, made a 360-degree turn while in the air and then dropped in a neighbor's back yard while they were in the house. That explained why I didn't see the house on Old Brownsville Road.

On the way back, we drove through Kingsville and other South Texas towns south of Corpus Christi to see if could find any other signs for destruction. There were none. This small compact storm had picked Corpus Christi and the area directly west and north of it to attack.

We came back to the South Texan office and started developing the film and writing our stories. For days, we were dazed.

Hurricane Beulah and Hurricane Celia were killer storms. I know many of us would welcome the rain from tropical storm or hurricane, but I don't think any of us wants the likes of the wrath of those two storms to visit our area soon.

What do you think? How do you feel?

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