| Flashbacks... I still have flashbacks, 37 years later, along
with the other half million women, men, and children who survived the onslaught.
Winds roaring so loud, so long, that they seeped into the ears, brain,
and soul. Pieces and parts of homes and lifetime possessions broken apart
like match sticks and propelled through the air at 175 mph, only to strike
and shred the neighboring home, creating a domino effect of destruction
and deadly projectiles. Windows blowing out, heavy doors ripping
off hinges and flying down hallways, exploding rooms, and roofs bursting
outward, toppling, or blowing away. Foggy mists of bay water blowing
at wind speeds so great that they penetrated every part of any home still
left standing. Wind-driven horizontal rain streaking through shattered
windows and gaping patio doors, 2 by 4 boards driven through brick walls,
like toothpicks through paper cups. Trees uprooting, fences blowing
flat, and utility poles leaning in every direction but up.
I remember us running for our lives from one disintegrating room to another. Over the howl of the winds, a loud boom, like a bomb, signaled our roof exploding from built up pressure, and water flowing from the second floor to the first floor, saturating everything in its path. Suddenly, in the midst of this holocaust, the winds stopped screaming from the north, the sun came out, birds flew by - the eye of hurricane Celia glared down at us. We knew that the winds would soon return from the opposite direction and quickly moved to the other side of the house, wading through mud, shredded belongings, and glass shards. Within minutes, south winds surging over 175 mph shoved and rocked what was left of our home, with us trapped in a small still intact room.
The only radio station still broadcasting reported that all wind gauges had blown away with gusts over 170 mph ... right before its own antenna toppled, leaving us completely out of touch with the rest of the world - surrounded by dark roaring winds, driving rain, and flying debris. I realized the fragility of humanity in the hands of mother nature gone berserk. Seconds seemed like hours, and hours felt like days. I was 9 months pregnant with our first child which was due this very day, but possible labor was the last thing on our minds. Huddled in a corner, we watched our neighbor's home shred apart until only a few walls and the foundation were left. Without radio contact for weather and radar tracking, we had no idea how much longer the storm would last, or whether our home could continue to resist total collapse.
Six hours after the eye passed, the winds died down enough for my brother-in-law to walk 3 blocks from his home to ours. His one story house had lost several windows but was somewhat intact, so we moved there for the night.
The next morning, my father, who lived 12 miles south in Corpus Christi got into his huge truck (always on stand-by for a hurricane because of its high wheelbase and ability to drive over debris) and carefully made his way to Portland. The National Guard stopped him and was not admitting anyone into our demolished town unless for good reason. He explained that his daughter's baby was due the day of the storm and was frantic to find us! I remember that he drove up as we were stumbling around our shredded home in shock over the damage.
We moved to daddy's house for the next 3 months while his construction crew put ours back together. His home was an old sturdy brick-clad house with metal hurricane shutters that probably could have withstood anything short of a tornado. However, damage in the city was so bad that his home had no power for almost a month and we all suffered through the post-storm 100 degree heat and high humidity. Fortunately, our daughter waited 2 more weeks to be born when the hospital finally had power and air conditioning in our hot, humid heat.
Storms are unpredictable, they can "stall out" and grind in one place, change direction, or move onward, spreading their massive destruction inland. Humans are helpless in this situation... we can do nothing but wait, and hope, and try to survive. And so we did, but only because Hurricane Celia was an unusually short lived storm, unleashing its most violent winds on our area for a brief 12 hours. Even so, it was one of the most costly hurricanes to hit the Texas coast, racking up 1/2 billion 1970 dollars of property damage during that half day visit.
Few homes, buildings, boats, and businesses in or near Corpus Christi escaped damage, if not complete destruction. Looting erupted, power and utility lines were completely down, gas and water mains were broken or tainted, roads and causeways were underwater or full of debris, the airport was damaged, and for several days there was really no way in or out of the area. Grocery stores, some without roofs, struggled to keep bottled water, canned goods, and basic food supplies available. With no power or gas, refrigerators became useless, as did stoves, hot water heaters, air conditioning, coffee pots, and all those other "luxury" items we take for granted. Those without water took no baths, flushed no commodes, and survived on canned and bottled drinks. Milk was unavailable for infants and children. Backyard grills were fired up with wet wood cut from toppled trees to cook all the defrosting meat and provide a source of warm food. Gas stations remained closed with no power for their pumps. Building supplies for repairs were sold out in one day, and until roads were cleared, more could not be shipped in.
In many respects, the aftermath of a hurricane is as bad, or worse than the duration of its onslaught. It took our region a week to partially clear highways and establish a influx of much needed basic food and supplies. It took weeks for power and telephone lines to be restored. It took a month for some people to have a clean bed to sleep in, longer than that for a new roof over their heads, and more than three years for Corpus Christi and the surrounding area to become "normal". And for many, the flashbacks will stay with us for the rest of our lives, giving us proper respect for these awesome forces of nature.
Celia was a very unusual storm. She formed "overnight" on Friday August 1, 1970 as a tiny non- threatening tropical wave in the Gulf of Mexico, but quickly intensified within 24 hours to hurricane strength of 73 mph on Saturday and was forecast to move north to Galveston. On Sunday morning, it made a 90 degree turn to the west and headed our way while quickly intensifying, and hit us at 3:00 in the afternoon. We had little warning, no time to prepare, and forecasters had no indication that Celia would generate almost 200 mph wind gusts by the time she reached land (do not believe the records that show only 125 mph - that must have been in Corpus Christi - in Portland and the eye of the storm, it was 175+!). Unlike most storms which normally have highest winds in the right-front quadrant, Celia's strongest gusts were in the left-rear quadrant. She was a small, intense gal when compared to some of her bigger sisters who have torn through the Caribbean, trounced through the Gulf of Mexico, and slammed into the Texas coast, yet each is completely different, unpredictable, and can carry different means of destruction, such as tidal waves, high tides, torrential rains, storm surges, and vicious winds. Most spawn and spin off hundreds of tornadoes within their sprawling storm pattern.
While some hurricanes like Celia are only 200 miles in diameter,
others such as Carla and Allen became organized in the Caribbean and while
gaining strength and size from warm waters, drift westward to fill the
entire Gulf of Mexico, stretching more than 600 miles in diameter to lash
islands and coasts between South to North America. Storm surge can
bring more than 16 feet of water into shorelines; tides can run more than
12 feet higher than normal; Hurricane Beulah dumped 27" of rain in a five
day period, creating massive flooding. Carla, a whale of a hurricane
born in September 1961, swept through the Caribbean, crossed the Yucatan
peninsula wreaking havoc, and drifted toward the northern Texas coast forcing
residents from Mexico to Louisiana to remain inside the protection of their
homes for several days while gale force winds battered and howled.
This storm created 18' tides, generated 175 mph winds, and flooded more
than 1.5 million acres of land before she died a slow inland death.
The town of Palacios was buried under 14' of water, Port O'Conner was 90%
destroyed, and heavy steel boats washed 500' inland. Thirty-four
people died, herds of livestock drowned, hundreds of rattlesnakes crawled
for higher ground along with surviving residents. I remember this
storm heading for landfall just north of us, sucking all the water out
of Corpus Christi Bay to drive it northward toward the doomed coastal towns
-- a very strange sight to see all our harbor boats, sitting on the waterless
bottom of huge Corpus Christi bay. For three long days, we stayed
inside our home glued to portable radios while weather forecasters madly
tried to track the storm and predict landfall. Carla, being large
and slow in her forward speed, gave those in its path time to prepare or
flee inland, but Celia popped up overnight and gave us no warning.
And such is the unpredictability of hurricanes.
The hurricane season extends from mid-June to the end of November
when 80 degree tropical waters provide energy for storm formation, but
the most active period is the middle of August to the end of September.
During that time, most storms become organized within an area from the
Bahamas to the Lesser Antilles, and sweep northward toward the east coast
slowly weakening as they leave warm tropical waters, or they charge westward
through "hurricane alley", a Caribbean path between south America and the
islands of Puerto Rico, Haiti, and Cuba. Historically, very few islands
in the Caribbean can be considered immune from storm patterns - Barbados
is slightly east of the major breeding ground and is seldom affected by
tropical storms, and the ABC (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao) islands are
slightly south of the "alley".
Most Caribbean islands are at a severe disadvantage when compared to the coastal regions of the U.S. -- the only quick escape from the island is via airlines which usually cease operations a day before the storm is predicted to hit; many islands are too low to provide high protected ground from storm surges; high ground is usually subject to the strongest winds, and most islands do not have an organized preparation or survival plan. Hotels and condos are seldom built to the hurricane standards of America; food and water supplies are limited. Surviving a hurricane and its aftermath is formidable when in your own home or country, it could be very difficult on a small island in the Caribbean.
Vacations are a time to get away from the routine and have fun.
Plan accordingly. Avoid Caribbean travel (including the east coast
of Mexico), if possible, during late August and September. If you
plan to go at that time, stay in touch with the Weather Channel or forecasts
before you travel and be prepared to cancel your trip if a hurricane organizes
near your destination. Once down there, stay in touch with weather
conditions - tropical storms can form overnight and reach hurricane strength
within a day or two. Usually only 48 hours advanced notice can be
reliably forecasted, the minimal time to shore up or find airline reservations
out. If you can't leave the island, move as far from the shoreline
as possible and stay in a sturdy, protected building at least 20' above
sea level; on mountainous islands, also avoid flash flood areas.
Be prepared to be without power, public water, and utilities for several
days. Load up on canned food and bottled liquids, batteries for flashlights
and portable radios. If you have a bathtub, fill with water for bathing
and flushing. If you have a rental car, top off the tank. During
a hurricane, stay inside and avoid standing near glass doors and windows
which can shatter. Open the windows on the downwind side to relieve
pressure on the room and building. And good luck... you'll need it.
As a friend of mine who returned from Hurricane Gilbert's devastating visit
to Cozumel said - "some vacation!"