Florida – Gulf of Mexico Hurricane – September 14, 1919

After causing major damage in the Florida Keys this hurricane devastated Corpus Christi.

The hurricane of 1919 was one of the deadliest and perhaps strongest storms of the twentieth century. With winds reaching at least 110 mph and wave heights as high as sixteen feet, the great storm made landfall in the Corpus Christi area on September 14, 1919. Local people were influenced by the widespread belief that the city was protected from severe damage of hurricanes by the barrier islands.

Even when stories reached them just ahead of the storm, of incredible damage from a hurricane in the Florida Keys, little was made of the possibility of a Texas landfall. Before September 14 had passed into history the terrible reality was evident to all: debris was piled up as high as sixteen feet in downtown Corpus Christi and the official total of dead was 287. Many believed that the accurate figure was in the range of 600–1,000 because city officials wanted to downplay the severity of the event.

The storm was first detected near the Lesser Antilles on September 2, 1919. It traveled to the west-northwest and hit the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas, where it reached peak strength as a category 4 hurricane. The storm’s center grazed the Florida Keys on September 9 as a category 4 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, killing several hundred people before making its way into the Gulf of Mexico. The barometric pressure of the hurricane after leaving the Keys, as taken by a ship, was 27.37 inches, making this hurricane one of the most intense in U.S. recorded history.

It was certainly the most intense to strike Key West in all of the twentieth century. As it moved into the Gulf something strange happened. All indications at the time pointed to the hurricane curving into the Louisiana coastline on September 13. On the basis of that prediction the Weather Bureau seemed to have ignored what was going on for a time. It is difficult to understand what happened subsequently unless this was the explanation.

With the advantages of radar, satellite, and weather balloon reports, it seems to be almost inconceivable today that we have not always had the luxury of tracking hurricanes hour by hour. Inconceivable as it may be, none of these technical resources were available to forecasters in 1919, but what was available, limited though it was, failed them. The Weather Bureau lost the hurricane in the Gulf soon after it had left the Keys. With no ship reports and only sporadic observations along the coastline, the Weather Bureau began a desperate attempt to find the hurricane center.

Coastal offices sent special observations by telegraph every two hours to the Washington headquarters. By midnight on September 13 the storm’s center was still missing as far as the forecasters were concerned. They sent a message to Corpus Christi urging everyone to take all possible precautions against a hurricane, especially if high winds, high tide, and low barometer readings were observed.

Finally, at 9:30 A.M. on September 14, the Meteorologist-In-Charge of the Corpus Christi Office issued a statement to get people out of low-lying areas at once. Police, city, and Weather Bureau officials began to notify the public. By 10:30 A.M. they knew that the hurricane was near. Shortly thereafter, wires to Port Aransas went down, isolating the city of Corpus Christi. Rockport did receive later advisories, and the last one gave an accurate if not cryptic analysis, this is the worst hurricane in history.

The first two deadly effects, the storm surge and wind, weakened and then tore away at buildings close to the coastline. But with the track and strength of the hurricane, a seiche developed along the bay front region of Corpus Christi. A northeast wind developed and, as it veered to the east, it strengthened the seiche. creating an even greater height in the storm surge. Water reached twelve feet in the downtown district, and even higher in the narrow inlet into Nueces Bay.

No one can give a reliable estimate of the strength of the hurricane when it made landfall. Wind data at the Corpus Christi Weather Office was lost when the anemometer was destroyed. One nearby town reported wind gusts of 170 mph. Damage all along the coast was both catastrophic and deadly. In the North Beach area of Corpus Christi only two buildings survived and both of them were severely damaged. Crude oil had been spilled everywhere and despite the harm done it ensured a lower rate of disease than might otherwise have occurred because the oil preserved dead bodies from quick decay.

The personal stories of survivors are quite extraordinary. One woman was found exhausted at the beach, tarred and feathered. She had become immersed in oil while drifting on debris. Her head rested on a feathered-down pillow that had come from somewhere. Another woman was washed ashore with her dog. Three times she had slipped off the raft on which she rested and three times her dog pulled her back on to it. One of the people forced to evacuate Corpus Christi was Bob Simpson, who would later become head of the National Hurricane Center and one of the designers of the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale.

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