The largest and most destructive storms affecting the Texas coast are the tropical cyclones that occur seasonally from late June through October. From 1818 to 1885 at least twenty-eight hurricanes struck Texas, and from 1885 through 1964 sixty-six tropical storms were recorded, about two-thirds of which were of hurricane force (with winds of more than seventy-four miles an hour). Two major hurricanes occurred in the five years from 1965 to 1970. Frequently these storms rushed inland, causing destruction and flooding in the interior, but the heaviest damage has always been to population centers along the coast.
A hurricane spoiled Jean Laffite's pirate encampment on Galveston Island in 1818, and "Racer's Storm" passed over the same area in 1837. This strong wind, named for the Racer, a British sloop-of-war that encountered the storm in the Yucatán Channel, reached Brownsville about October 4, curved up the coastline over Galveston, and then moved eastward to the Atlantic Ocean near Charleston, South Carolina. Racer's Storm wrecked nearly every vessel on the coast and blew away all the houses on Galveston Island. It sent floodwaters inland fifteen to twenty miles over the coastal prairies.
Five years later, in September 1842, Galveston was again prostrated. No lives were lost, but parts of the city were tossed about like "pieces of a toy town." Damage to ships and buildings amounted to $50,000. Another September storm struck Texas in 1854 between Galveston and Matagorda. Matagorda was leveled, Houston sustained a $30,000 loss, and heavy damage was reported at Lynchburg, San Jacinto, Velasco, Quintana, Brazoria, Columbia, and Sabine Pass.
The entire Texas coast felt the hurricane of 1867, which entered the state south of Galveston on October 3. Bagdad and Clarksville, at the mouth of the Rio Grande, were flattened, while Galveston was flooded and raked for a loss of $1 million.
On September 16, 1875, a hurricane washed away three-fourths of the buildings in Indianola, Calhoun County, and killed 176 people. Five years later, on October 12–13, 1880, many lives were lost and Brownsville was nearly destroyed by a tropical wind. A second hurricane in Indianola on August 19–20, 1886, struck the town, destroying or damaging every structure.
The Galveston hurricane of 1900, on September 8–9, is known as the worst natural disaster in United States history. Although the wind was estimated at 120 miles per hour, flooding caused most of the damage. The island was completely inundated. Property loss amounted to about $40 million, and an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 persons perished. On August 16–19, 1915, Galveston again received the brunt of a vicious hurricane. Damage amounted to $50 million, but only 275 lives were lost because of the protection afforded by a new seawall.
At Corpus Christi a storm on August 18, 1916, inflicted over $1.5 million damage and took twenty lives. Three years later, on September 14, 1919, the center of a hurricane moved inland just south of the city. Tides were sixteen feet above normal, the wind rose to 110 miles an hour, and damage was estimated at $20,272,000. Some 284 persons perished.
The center of a hurricane passed near Brownsville on September 4–5, 1933. The wind velocity was measured at 106 miles an hour before the anemometer blew away, and wind gusts were estimated at 125 miles an hour. Most of the citrus crop of the lower Rio Grande valley was ruined. Forty persons were killed and 500 were injured.
On June 27, 1957, Hurricane Audrey swept across the Gulf Coast near the Texas-Louisiana line. Nine lives were lost and 450 persons were injured. Property damage, particularly extensive in Jefferson and Orange counties, amounted to $8 million. The effect was more serious across Sabine Lake in Cameron Parish, Louisiana, where hundreds of people died.
Hurricane Carla, the largest hurricane of record in Texas, occurred on September 8–14, 1961. During the storm, a tornado ravaged Galveston Island; at Port Lavaca, Carla's wind gusts were estimated at 175 miles per hour. The total damage to property and crops amounted to over $300 million, with the heaviest losses sustained in the area between Corpus Christi and Port Arthur. Because 250,000 persons were evacuated from the coastal region, only thirty-four were killed and 465 were injured.
Hurricane Beulah, the third largest hurricane of the twentieth century, swept across South Texas on September 20–21, 1967. The storm, which had previously ravaged the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, moved inland from the Gulf just south of Port Isabel early on the morning of the twentieth. It struck Brownsville with winds estimated at 140 miles an hour, moved northwest across South Texas to the vicinity of Alice, then turned southwest, crossed the Rio Grande between Zapata and Laredo, and finally blew itself out in Mexico. Advance warnings permitted the evacuation of Port Isabel, Port Mansfield, and Port Aransas, but winds and rain caused considerable property damage there as well as in the resort areas of Padre Island. In the port of Brownsville tides and high winds damaged a large portion of the shrimp fleet, and in the lower Rio Grande valley the citrus crop was ruined.
Beulah spawned 115 separate tornadoes, several of which occurred in populated areas. Tornadoes struck New Braunfels, Fulton, and Sweet Home and were sighted as far north as Austin. Rains of up to thirty inches accompanied the storm, and these in turn caused floods that inundated a large part of South Texas for more than two weeks. Three Rivers, Sinton, Victoria, and Pleasanton were hit especially hard. In Harlingen rampaging water from the Arroyo Colorado threatened the entire city. Floodwaters on the Rio Grande put large portions of Camargo and Reynosa, Tamaulipas, under water, and some 9,000 refugees crossed the border to Rio Grande City. On September 28, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared twenty-four counties in South Texas disaster areas. Official estimates in these counties set the number of dead at eighteen, the injured or sick at 9,000, and the number of homes destroyed or heavily damaged at 3,000. Property damage was estimated at $100 million, crop damage at $50 million. Some 300,000 people were evacuated during the storm and subsequent flooding.
Hurricane Celia, reported to be the costliest in the state's history, ravaged Corpus Christi on August 3, 1970. Before the storm the weather was deceptively calm, with no heavy rains or gusty winds. Preliminary reports indicated the approach of a relatively mild storm. Celia, formed as a tropical depression in the Gulf of Mexico, first hit land at Port Aransas, Ingleside, and Aransas Pass. The eye of the storm moved inland just north of Corpus Christi, then moved successively in several directions, swept that city, Portland, Taft, Bayside, Gregory, Fulton Beach, Rockport, and Key Allegro, and went on through Odem, Edroy, Sinton, Mathis, Agua Dulce, Robstown, Sandia, Orange Grove, and George West. Winds up to 161 miles an hour and gusts to 180 miles an hour were reported. President Richard M. Nixon declared seven counties a major disaster area. An estimated thirteen persons died near Corpus Christi. Officials estimated damage to commercial buildings, automobiles, and homes at more than $500 million. Crop losses and damage to farm equipment were estimated at more than $100 million. More than 3,500 people left Corpus Christi, and the low-lying regions of entire cities were evacuated. Celia ended on August 5, in a series of thunderstorms near El Paso and the New Mexico border. Hurricane Celia did not produce the torrential rains and flooding that so often accompany storms of this magnitude, however. The heaviest rainfall was 6.38 inches in Corpus Christi, and at Pearsall and Jourdanton, thirty to forty miles north of the hurricane center, there was no rain. Studies of the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas at Austin indicated that Celia differed significantly from previous storms that have struck the coast in that it was much narrower and correspondingly more intense in the affected area.
South Texas was hit by Hurricane Allen on August 9–11, 1980. Padre Island and Corpus Christi sustained the worst damage. The southernmost part of the region received twenty inches of rain, and 250,000 residents had to be evacuated. Hurricane Allen spawned twenty-nine tornados, one of the worst hurricane-related outbreaks. Three people died, and property damage reached $650 million to $750 million. Another major hurricane to hit Texas in the early 1980s was Hurricane Alicia, which occurred on August 15–21, 1983. Damage, primarily in the Galveston and Houston areas, was estimated at $3 billion. Thirty-two tornados resulted from the 130-mile-an-hour winds, eighteen people were killed, and 1,800 were injured. On September 16–18, 1988, Hurricane Gilbert struck Cameron County. It produced six to ten inches of rain and around twenty-nine tornados. One tornado-related death was reported. Damages were estimated at $3 million to $5 million.
Other significant storms include those at Galveston Bay, 1776; Brazos Santiago, 1884; Sabine, 1886; Port Arthur, 1897; Velasco, 1909; near Freeport, 1932; near Seadrift, 1934; near Matagorda, 1941; Matagorda Bay, 1942; near Galveston, 1943; in the Aransas-San Antonio Bay area, 1945; Freeport, 1949; west of Port Arthur, 1963; the Coastal Bend area, 1971; near Port Arthur, 1980; between High Island and Sabine Pass, 1986; and in Harris, Galveston, and Brazoria counties, 1989. Though it is true that hurricane-inflicted damage to property has increased through the years, the death rate has not, because of the implementation of various precautionary measures. See also TORNADOES and WEATHER.