40th Anniversary of Last Major Hurricane
 in the Coastal Bend

Tim Tinsley, NWS Corpus Christi

 

Forty years ago this summer, Hurricane Celia blasted the Coastal Bend. On August 3rd, 1970, Hurricane Celia
made landfall near Port Aransas as a major Category 3 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale with sustained
winds of 125-130 mph.  Celia is the last major hurricane to make landfall on the Middle Texas Coast. Celia was
an interesting storm in that it had two rapid intensification cycles and explosive damaging wind gusts in the
western semi-circle of the eye of the storm in addition to the typical eastern semi-circle.

 

Storm History

Celia formed into a tropical depression in the northwest Caribbean Sea west of the Cayman Islands on July 30th.
Celia became a tropical storm on the morning of August 1st as it entered the Gulf of Mexico after crossing the western
tip of Cuba. Celia quickly intensified to a major hurricane by late afternoon with 115 mph winds as the pressure
dropped 25 millibars in 8 hours. But the intensification was brief as winds decreased to 90 mph later on the morning
of the August 2nd.
 

Hurricane Celia track

 

Although Celia stayed on a west-northwest course, a curve to the right was expected before landfall. Hurricane
warnings were issued for the Upper Texas Coast on the morning of August 2nd. However, Celia stayed on course for
Corpus Christi. Hurricane warnings were issued on the morning of August 3rd for Corpus Christi for a strong
Category 1 or weak Category 2 hurricane (90 to 100 mph sustained winds). For those that had waited, only 
limited time was left to make preparations for the storm. Conditions worsened as Celia underwent rapid intensification
before landfall. The central pressure dropped 43 millibars in 15 hours to 945 millibars (27.89 inches of mercury
at Ingleside) at landfall in the afternoon of August 3rd. Celia almost reached Category 4 status with sustained
winds of 125 mph at Corpus Christi International Airport and 130 mph at Aransas Pass.  Celia caused 15 deaths
in South Texas and 466 injuries. Celia weakened to a tropical storm by the time it reached Cotulla but remained
a tropical storm as it passed near Del Rio, causing a million dollars worth in damage to that city. Celia weakened
to a tropical depression as it moved into the Big Bend. Celia was still a tropical depression as it crossed El Paso
before weakening further.

Damaging Winds

For most hurricanes, the storm surge is the most damaging and life threatening element. But Celia showed what
can happen when extreme winds affect a metropolitan area. As the eye of Celia moved across Corpus Christi Bay, 
sustained winds of  110 to 130 mph occurred from Nueces County north to southern part of Refugio County. The
strongest winds occurred in less than 30 minutes over the Corpus Christi area but caused all of the significant damage.
A notable aspect of the winds was the strength of the gusts. The maximum gusts were typically 30 to 40 mph greater.
The highest estimated gusts were 180 mph at Aransas Pass and Robstown.

Location (* - estimated) Max Sustained Wind Max Wind Gust
Aransas Pass NNE 130 mph SW 180 mph *
Corpus Christi WSO SW 125 mph SW 161 mph
Port Aransas Coast Guard NNE 104 mph NNE 127 mph
Gregory (Reynolds Plant) NNW 128 mph NNW 138 mph
Refugio 3S NNE 120 mph NNE 160 mph *
Bayside E 110 mph ESE 140 mph *
Portland/Odem   N&S 160 mph *
Robstown   WSW 180 mph *
Mathis N 100 mph * N 150 mph

Much of the destruction appeared to be similar to what can be associated with a tornado, but surveys did not
show any circulation within damage areas (As a reference to the Fujita scale for tornado damage and wind
speeds, widespread EF2 damage occurred across the Coastal Bend with pockets of EF4 damage). The
damage was also peculiar in that some homes near the devastated areas were almost untouched.  Dr. Robert
Simpson, director of the National Hurricane Center at the time and who later helped develop the Saffir-Simpson
scale in 1971, surveyed the damage in Corpus Christi from aircraft. Simpson described it as "a succession of
long streaks of heavy damage...as small packets of high energy winds radially spaced from north to south at
intervals of a mile or more raked across Corpus Christi from west to east." 
   


Celia max wind speeds

The destructive winds from Hurricane Celia left behind staggering property damage to the Coastal Bend.

Damage was extreme in the Coastal Bend counties of Nueces, San Patricio, and Aransas, generally around
Corpus Christi Bay. The hardest hit areas included the Corpus Christi metro area, Port Aransas, Aransas Pass,
Robstown, and Portland as well as other smaller communities in this region. In Corpus Christi, 70 percent of
residences suffered damage. In Portland, 90 percent of the homes and businesses suffered damage and near
75 percent in Port Aransas. In total, 8,950 homes where destroyed, 13,850 homes suffered major damage, and
41,800 homes had minor damage. Commercial losses included 252 businesses destroyed, 331 boats lost, and
310 farm buildings damaged. Over 3000 power poles were blown down across the area. Most mobile home in
the high winds were shredded and a total loss. The total property and crop damage was estimated at 453.8 million
dollars (relates to 2.5 billion dollars in 2010). Celia was the costliest storm to hit Texas up to that time, surpassing
Category 4 Hurricane Carla's damage of 1961.



Storm Surge

Due to Hurricane Celia's intensification shortly before landfall along with its compact size, the storm surge was
not the significant element to this storm. The highest storm surge occurred at Port Aransas where the tides
reached 9.2 feet at the beach and 9.0 feet at the jetty. Only minor damage occurred in Port Aransas due to
the storm surge. The tides ranged from 3 to 5 feet from Corpus Christi north to Baytown and Galveston.


Location Highest Tide
Port Aransas Beach 9.2 feet
Mustang Island 7.9 feet
Lavaca Bay Park - Port Lavaca 5.8 feet
Baytown 5.3 feet
Rockport 5.0 feet
Corpus Christi Bayfront 4.9 feet
Freeport - Dow Chemical Plant 4.9 feet
La Porte 4.8 feet

Tornadoes

Hurricane Celia produced several tornadoes that affected various regions of South Texas. The number of tornadoes
was much less that what was seen with Hurricane Beulah in 1967. One of the eight tornadoes killed a man near
Lake Corpus Christi and caused 2 injuries. The eight tornadoes occurred in the following locations: Port O'Connor,
Lake Corpus Christi to 1 mile north of Sandia, 4 miles southeast of Refugio, near Yoakum (DeWitt County), just

south and 10 miles west of Dilley (Frio County), north of Katy (Harris County), and Alvin (Brazoria County).

 


 

Rainfall

Hurricane Celia was much different than the previous hurricane to affect South Texas before Celia which was
Hurricane Beulah in September of 1967. Hurricane Beulah was a large and slow moving tropical cyclone. This
led to widespread flooding across South Texas with record river levels on the Nueces River basin that still
stand today. Hurricane Celia was compact and fast moving system which limited the amount of rain received across
South Texas. The Coastal Bend received the most rainfall which ranged from 5 to 7 inches with the maximum
of 7.26 inches at Robstown.
 



Rainfall from Hurricane Celia


Satellite Imagery

Satellite technology was coming out of its infancy stage in 1970. There are several visible satellite images of Hurricane
Celia. This image shows the life cycle of Hurricane Celia from July 30th to August 6th.


Life cycle of Celia

The visible satellite image most notable is when Hurricane Celia was making landfall in South Texas
on the afternoon of August 3rd. The eye can barely be seen near Port Aransas in this image.

 

File:Hurricane Celia at landfall.gif

Steering Pattern

A persistent upper level high pressure was over the southern Rockies eastward into the southeast United
States on July 31st (the upper left graphic below shows the 500 mb pattern ~ 20,000 feet and wind flow
on the evening of  July 31st). As Celia moved into the southern Gulf of Mexico on August 1st (upper right
quadrant), the high pressure steered Celia to the west-northwest. The forecasts at the time expected
Celia to make a turn more to the northwest and affect the Upper Texas Coast. However, as seen in the

lower right quadrant, the high pressure did not shift to the east until the evening of August 3rd when
Celia made landfall in South Texas. Celia moved northwest to near El Paso as a tropical depression on August 5th.

 

 

 

500 MB Height/Streamline (08/01/70 00Z)

500 MB Hgt/Streamline (08/02/70 00Z)
0000 UTC 1 August 1970 0000 UTC 2 August 1970
500 MB Hgt/Streamline (08/03/70 00z) 500 MB Hgt/Streamline (08/04/70 00Z)
0000 UTC 3 August 1970 0000 UTC 4 August 1970

Local Statements

The National Weather Service office in Corpus Christi issued several local statements for Hurricane Celia. The statements
updated the hazardous situation as it unfolded with Celia approaching. The statements indicated the "ESSA Weather
Bureau" in Corpus Christi. At the time, the National Weather Service was under the parent agency Environmental Science
Services Administration (ESSA) which was later reorganized into the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration
(NOAA).


August 2nd 11 AM August 3rd 810 AM
August 2nd 1 PM August 3rd 9 AM
August 2nd 3 PM August 3rd 11 AM
August 2nd 5 PM August 3rd 12 Noon
August 2nd 7 PM August 3rd 1 PM
August 3rd 3 AM August 3rd 2 PM
August 3rd 5 AM August 3rd 440 PM
August 3rd 7 AM Storm Report


Image Gallery

The images below in color were taken in the Annaville area. The black and white photos are selected from different
areas across the Coastal Bend.

 
 

Page by Alex Tardy WFO Corpus Christi

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