The hurricane is a force of nature that has driven fear into the hearts of coastal communities for generations. These storms are sometimes hundreds of miles across with rainfall that can sometimes be measured in feet rather than inches. The devastation they have left behind has shaped the history of the Texas Gulf Coast.
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. They are often slow-moving, which means the storm’s rainfall becomes even more intense and more problematic. Hurricanes most often are seen between June and November, but most are small and spin out into the ocean, never approaching land. Typically, hurricanes forming in the Atlantic are most often seen in the period from June through Septemeber, but storms forming in the Gulf of Mexico are most often seen from September through November. However, they can form in many different ways in unusual times of year. Hurricanes produce all types of weather-related disasters: deadly lightning, hail, powerful winds, torrential rains, and tornadoes.
The earliest recorded hurricanes in Texas date to the 1500s with the Spanish exploration of Texas and the Gulf of Mexico. Sailors, however, had known about hurricanes long before that in other parts of the world. The first recorded hurricane to strike Texas hit a Spanish merchant fleet just off Galveston Island in November 1527, leaving 200 dead. In November 1590, a terrifying Gulf hurricane wrecked dozens of ships caught unaware of the danger. Thousands of people died in that hurricane.
The damage to livestock is devastating in itself. A 1791 hurricane hitting South Padre Island ruined the developing ranches in the area. Ranches lost more than 50,000 head of cattle.
Hurricanes have changed the course of Texas History. Racer’s Storm in 1837 was the first recorded storm to track along the entire Texas coast, leaving scores dead in its wake. The damage overwhelmed the sparse resources of the Republic of Texas at the time. Indianola was once an important port city on Matagorda Bay, a bustling community with ports, shops, and a post office. Three disastrous hurricanes between 1875 and 1886 prompted residents to abandon the city. The 1875 storm killed 300 and many more died in a June 1886 hurricane. Another hurricane just a few weeks later inundated the city, and the survivors left. What ruins remain of Indianola are now 15 feet under water.
The first recorded hurricane to hit Galveston Island struck in 1766. Many others struck throughout the nineteenth century, including an 1818 hurricane that left the city under four feet of water. 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.
Galveston dismantled its slow city council form of government and instituted a commission form of government, with elected officials directly in charge of particular city services, all serving under the mayor. The new city commission allowed Galveston to quickly rebuild and remain an important port city. It was able to survive the next hurricane that hit the city in 1915. Dozens of cities across the nation copied Galveston’s new commission form of government in response. Though it avoided the fate of Indianola, neighboring Houston was able to surpass it and become the most important Texas port.
The ability of hurricanes to produce incredible damage from wind and rain cannot be overstated. Modern forecasting techniques employing Doppler radar, reports from the ground and sea, and aerial reconnaissance flights into the eye of the hurricane itself give important information on how the hurricane is developing, its potential strength, and its direction. This now gives coastal residents up to a week to prepare for a devastating storm and evacuate if needed. Centuries of experience with the wrath of hurricanes has taught forecasters important lessons on the behavior of hurricanes, lessons that can save lives if people are willing to heed their words.