From Drought To Dolly
Weather Contrasts Dominate 2008 Across the Lower RGV

Part I: Winter and Spring

Calendar year 2008 was no shrinking violet when it came to weather extremes across the Lower Rio Grande Valley and Deep South Texas. While a decent number of significant weather events occur each year, 2008 will be notable for a veritable Yin and Yang (or, more appropriately, Yang, then Yin) of opposites, beginning with a warm, dry, and windy late winter and spring (the Yang), followed by an abrupt turn to a wetter and slightly cooler summer (the Yin), and finishing with a relatively tame autumn, sprinkled with prolonged warm, breezy periods pierced by sharply colder, brisk, and drizzly days. While Hurricane Dolly will be 2008’s signature event, there were plenty of other weather hazards to keep residents on their toes.

Winter: Early Rain Gives Way to Wind and Warmth

January began as one might expect, with a minor freeze affecting Deep South Texas and the Lower RGV. The cold temperatures, combined with generally dry weather to close out 2007, allowed moderate drought conditions to develop early in the month. These conditions were briefly interrupted by a cool, steady rain on January 15th, which dropped between 1 and 2 inches in many areas near the coast. February will be remembered for wind, heat, and even some severe weather, as an active jet stream racing from the Southwest U.S. through the southern Plains combined with increasing to sun angle to keep things interesting.

On February 5th, record temperatures between 95 and 100°F scorched areas from Hidalgo and Brooks County westward, while wind gusts at or above 50 mph caused some minor damage between Brownsville and Harlingen. This date became noteworthy for the deadly crash of an EMS rescue helicopter into the Laguna Madre just west of the South Padre Island Convention Center at around 930 PM. The crash took three lives, and may have been partially caused by gusty, shifting winds along the cold front which passed through the area that evening.

A warming atmosphere combined with the closer proximity of the jet stream are prime ingredients for severe weather, and conditions came together on February 12th, when an approaching front clashed with unstable air to produce a half dozen hail reports, up to golf ball size diameter. A few days later, the heat and wind returned. Some of the strongest non tropical winds of the year, gusting to at least 52 mph, slammed the Lower RGV on February 16th, causing minor damage to trees, power lines, and poorly built structures.

Spring: Drought, Wildfire, Heat, and Storms

March picked up where February left off, with gusty winds combining with increasing warmth to not only deepen the drought, but rapidly increase the threat for rapidly spreading wildfires. Winds cranked up again on March 3rd, and a week and a half later, the first (and only) widespread 100°F temperature event on the 14th and 15th roasted most of Deep South Texas, setting the table for the most wide ranging impact weather of the season on March 17th and 18th, including wildfires that destroyed up to 40,000 acres, two days of gusty winds in excess of 50 mph causing minor damage to trees, power lines, and a few older or poorly built structures, and high and heavy surf that impacted Spring Breakers and other visitors to South Padre Island. By month's end, all of the region was in moderate to severe drought.

Sustained heat arrived in early April, rapidly kicking up the drought especially from Hidalgo and Brooks County west, where afternoon relative humidity routinely fell below 35%. While gusty winds continued early in the month toward the coast, lighter winds inland, perhaps combined with a little luck, kept significant wild fire starts. By April 17th, extreme to exceptional drought covered all but the coastal counties, fed by persistent daytime temperatures in the 90s, no rain, and a decent amount of sunshine. Much welcome rains, however, would finally arrive on the 27th into early on the 28th, putting a dent into the drought across most of the coastal counties, with some relief from eastern Starr through southern Hidalgo County. Still, lower rainfall farther north and west into Deep South Texas did little to relieve the extreme conditions, and two more warm and dry days which followed the rain once again set the stage for rapid wildfire growth, even in more moderate winds, on April 30th.

The hot, rain free conditions continued for the first third of May, with whatever drought relief from the late April rains being erased. However, as the month progressed, so did a gradual buildup of surface moisture, eventually reaching the Rio Grande Plains around mid month. That moisture, aided by deeper southerly flow caused by a series of upper level disturbances, eventually would produce the Valley's "severe weather season", lasting all of three calendar days but packing some punch.

During the evening of May 14th, a supercell thunderstorm dumped hail for more than 30 minutes in and near Zapata, TX, along with an embedded microburst with winds up to 75 mph in the storm’s core. Additional hail and strong winds propagated east into Starr, Jim Hogg, and Brooks County. A little more than 24 hours later, a second batch of energy kicked off a line of strong storms which consolidated into a severe cell over extreme eastern Starr County, which then raced east, producing wind gusts between 65 and 86 mph in central Hidalgo County and west central Cameron County before weakening just shy of the Laguna Madre in the pre dawn hours of May 16th. This particular storm not only created structural damage, but caused minor injuries to 13 residents of a colonia west of Edinburg. This brief surge of severe weather was followed by a few days of quiet. However, the hottest weather of the entire year, in terms of apparent temperature, occurred between May 22nd and 23rd, when the heat index rose to or above 110°F along the Rio Grande from southwest Cameron County out to Zapata County.

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