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THE 1943 "SURPRISE" HURRICANE

Lew Fincher
Hurricane Consulting

 

Bill Read
Houston / Galveston Area National Weather Service



Introduction
It was in the dead of summer along the upper Texas coast. The nation was rightfully preoccupied with the events of the Second World War. All news underwent censorship. Because of German U-boat activity expected in the Gulf of Mexico, all ships radio broadcasts were silenced. This included any reports of weather...even adverse weather such as a hurricane. Weather Bureau forecasters in 1943 relied almost exclusively on reports from ships at sea and land based weather offices in cities and airports for the data used to issue storm warnings. Satellite imagery was 20 years away... radar over a decade. Aircraft reconnaissance was soon to be born...but not yet.

With those constraints in mind, one can see why the hurricane that hit the Houston-Galveston area on July 27, 1943 came without adequate warning. Newspaper accounts of the storm describe it as the "worst since 1915". The 1915 hurricane tested the famous Galveston seawall and killed over 275 people. The July 27, 1943 hurricane killed a reported 19 people, injured hundreds and caused significant property damage ($17,000,000, COE,1972) through much of the metropolitan area. A continuing interest in documenting the hurricane threat to the Houston and surrounding area has led us to research the impact of hurricanes in our area. Our focus has been on storms prior to Carla (1961), as that storm and more recent events tend to be well documented. While each storm is different and adds to the hurricane history of the area, the 1943 hurricane has proven to be most noteworthy to date. It is the only one of consequence that the center tracked directly across Galveston Bay and into Houston. The lack of warning and, for 1943, the high population (metropolitan area over 600,000) under the storm s path should have created considerable data on the impact.

Perhaps because of the war and censorship of weather information, etc., we have, as of this writing, been unable to dig up much "hard official data" on the storm itself. Through newspaper articles, insurance reports and personal accounts found in several books on the area, we have been able to piece together what it was like to go through the storm and how much damage was caused. An added historical note on this storm...the first documented intentional flight into a hurricane was accomplished as the storm moved into Houston from the Bay.

Our intent in this short article is to document as best we can what the storm was like meteorologically, give a flavor of the impact of the storm in the Houston and Galveston area, and perhaps jog some memories of others in the hurricane business who may have come across additional data on this storm..

Meteorological Aspects of the 1943 Hurricane
The official records (Neumann, et al) of the National Hurricane Center (NHC) indicate that the 1943 Hurricane formed as a depression during the day on July 25 southeast of Burrwood Louisiana. The storm moved slowly due west during the night. (Figure 1). On the 26th , the storm began moving west northwest and stayed on that course through landfall in the Galveston Bay area during the morning through the evening on July 27. The official record shows maximum sustained winds around 86 mph. The forward motion was slow, averaging 7 mph. There are no references in the NHC data as to the basis for location and strength while the storm was over water. We assume, perhaps incorrectly, forecasters had some access to ship reports after the war and made estimates accordingly. Perhaps it was extrapolated backwards from known intensity at landfall.

There is virtually no reference to the storm in records kept at the local Houston NWS office or the former Galveston NWS office. Again, war era regulations did not permit release of records kept at these offices and we were informed anecdotally that in all likelihood any records taken would have been classified and shipped to Washington. Most of what we have on the storm has been pieced together from newspaper archives from the Houston Chronicle, Houston Post, Houston Press, Baytown Son, Forward Times and Texas City Sun, and through various local area personal histories found in libraries. One other source of information has been eyewitness accounts of survivors that lived in the area. Unless otherwise noted, reference to values of wind speed, tide height, rainfall and pressure have come from the newspaper articles.

The first public awareness of the storm was Monday morning, July 26, 1943. The papers carried an article headlined "First Storm Warning of the Season". The article went on to report the disturbance was located "110 miles west southwest of Burrwood, LA and moving west at 10 mph, attended by strong winds, probably gales. The advisory called for 30-40 mph winds on the Louisiana coast Monday night and in Texas on Tuesday. Small Craft were advised to stay in port". The Houston Weather Bureau Meteorologist in Charge at the time, C. E. Norquist, was quoted as saying when asked about the storm "don't get the people disturbed by use of the word hurricane. As matters now stand it is a small tropical disturbance. If it gets worse, we will let everyone know in plenty of time."

Tuesday morning apparently little had changed as far as knowledge on the strength of the storm. The Houston area and upper Texas coast were advised of "a tropical storm of minor size and intensity" and small craft were advised to remain in port. The first knowledge of the intensity of the hurricane came after the storm began making landfall on the Bolivar Peninsula east of Galveston before noon. Wind damage reports were sent from Galveston during the afternoon. The afternoon edition of the Houston Press had headlines that read "Storm Heads for Houston; Galveston Damage Light". 65 to 75-Mile Winds Due Early This Afternoon, opened the warning that didn't arrive in time for most in the quickly strengthening hurricanes path. At that time citizens were advised of a "small but severe tropical storm with winds possibly reaching hurricane force" that would hit Houston late in the day and overnight. The advisory came as Galveston, almost completely unprepared, was hit by 74-mile gusts which ripped through the island city. The report continued, stating that the storm was centered about 15 miles north of Galveston at 11:30 a.m. and moving west northwest at about 10 miles per hour.

Various accounts show that the brunt of the storm on the coast and inland to Texas City and communities in Galveston County occurred between noon and 4 p.m. The strongest winds were from the north and northwest...as the eye passed just to the east over Galveston Bay and across Bolivar point. Reported maximum winds varied widely with peak gusts of 104 mph measured in Texas City. The most common reference to sustained wind suggested 70-90 mph. The storm surge reported from the Gulf side was surprisingly light...only 3 to 6 feet. Most flooding in Galveston was attributed to rising water from the Bay side rather than the Gulf.

From mid afternoon through early evening, Bay Area communities from Kemah and Seabrook to the south, through La Porte and Baytown to the north took a direct hit from the storm as it moved inland from Galveston Bay. Interestingly, these areas also reported strongest winds from the northwest, suggesting that the left rather than right side had the most intense winds. Various accounts had winds estimated above 70-80 mph with "certainly higher gusts" Two utility towers over the Ship Channel, rated to withstand 120 mph, were blown down. Again, no tidal flooding was reported, rather, many accounts spoke of extremely low water in Galveston Bay after the center passed inland...indicative of strong north winds pushing the water out.

During the early evening to late night hours the center of the hurricane passed through the City of Houston. The eye was reported over downtown Houston at 11:45 p.m. It was during this period that the anemometer at the Metropolitan Airport registered a gust to 132 mph and had sustained winds of 85 mph for two and a half hours. Minimum pressure recorded was 28.78" (975 mb) at Ellington Field (COE 1972) while a minimum of 28.95" was reported at the airport. Winds at the Weather Bureau office downtown peaked at 56 mph. By early Wednesday morning, July 28, the storm had weakened to a minimal tropical storm and was located northwest of Houston near the town of Navasota.

Rainfall from the storm was apparently quite variable. Newspaper accounts place rainfall in the 5 to 7 inch range at most locations. La Porte recorded over 17" (COE, 1972) while further east in the Port Arthur area a report of over 19 inches was recorded. Some of the personal accounts indicate the heaviest rainfall began with center passage and lasted into Wednesday. The only report of widespread serious freshwater flooding was in the Beaumont/Port Arthur area. Except in the immediate path of the center of the storm, no significant wind damage was noted. All the data we have suggests this was a small but fairly intense hurricane. The lack of any significant wind reports along the coast of Louisiana and east of Bolivar even though the storm center was less than 100 miles from land support this. More evidence of the size of this storm comes from personal stories of the sun still shining in downtown Houston at noon...at the time the storm was reaching Bolivar just 60-70 miles away. It also explains why the storm came without warning. With no ship reports and no adverse weather over land, there was no way for forecasters to know how strong conditions were near the eye.

The lack of storm surge east of the eye at landfall is puzzling. One possibility is that the hurricane intensified just as it made landfall. Another is that the storm was asymmetrical, with the stronger winds to the left, or gulf-ward side of the track, as might be expected from a storm moving parallel and close to land. The strong and very gusty winds reported out of the northwest are reminiscent of another more recent Texas hurricane...Celia. Interestingly, Celia moved east to west along the Texas coast as a relatively weak storm until just prior to landfall. Another similar storm for this area was Alicia, which formed off the Louisiana coast and intensified a short time just prior to landfall. Both of these hurricanes were also small in size. The newspaper reports, damage photographs and handful of actual data (975 mb and 132 mph gusts at Ellington, the Humble Oil Refinery, and the Metropolitan Airport, with 104 mph gusts at Texas City) suggest to us that the storm was more likely on the order of a category 2 at landfall (100 mph) rather than the category 1 (86 mph) stated in the official record. Given the storm s very small size and slow forward motion, and using current expected reduction of winds as it moved inland, it would be expected that winds would have been less than 85 mph sustained at either Ellington or the Municipal Airport by the time the center passed over these locations if, in fact, the storm had only 86 mph maximum winds at landfall.

Damage Accounts
Had this hurricane arrived a little farther west near Galveston s west end, the destruction would have become even more devastating than it was. If it had crossed over the island instead of the Bolivar Peninsula, a large storm surge would have been pushed into the Bay area causing possibly a large loss of life, due to the lack of warning. People living along the northern and western shore of Galveston Bay would have been trapped to face the pounding waves and rising seas on land as low as five feet above sea level in many places. Compared with the damage that was done, who knows how bad the destruction and loss of live would have been. In October of 1943, the Fire Companies Adjustment Bureau reported about 65,000 insurance claims from this hurricane. There total at that time for recorded insured claims totaled over $11,000,000 for the hurricane of July 27, 1943. What percentage of losses were there that weren t insured? The Great Depression was just a few years ago. Most couldn t afford insurance.

Galveston
The height of the seawall protected the Stewart Beach area which is located between the Gulf and the seawall. The height of the seawall was just high enough to block the severe wind from blowing down those structures. People in well-constructed cottages and tourist courts on the beach suffered little except for becoming confined inside. Some 1,000 people marooned in the Buccaneer Hotel near Galveston s Seawall could see, all day on Tuesday, a sandy beach of 75 to 100 feet beyond the seawall. This was caused by the same strong northwest wind that brought waist-deep floodwaters flowing from Galveston Bay into the northern areas of the island. Later, drinking water on the island became scarce as power to well pumps failed. A three story brick building that had been abandoned due to a fire before the storm collapsed as the winds built to hurricane strength.

Bolivar Peninsula
Across from the island of Galveston on the Bolivar Peninsula, the hurricane came ashore. As it roared across Bolivar, the U.S. Army's Corp. of Engineer s hopper dredge, "GALVESTON" broke up on the north jetty, killing 11 of its crew. Nearly all the homes at Point Bolivar were leveled by the high wind. Under normal hurricane conditions, the peninsula would have had a sizable storm surge, but because of the movement of the storm and it s strange configuration this didn t take place.

Port Arthur
At about the same time as the "GALVESTON" was going down off Galveston's North jetties, the sea-going tug, "TITAN" was taking on water as it tried to make port, through the building seas and extreme wind, in Port Arthur, Texas. It had left Galveston, Texas the day before the storm hit and was caught in the grip of the storm as it quickly increased in wind and seas. Four of Titan s crew drowned, three, trying to get into a rubber raft and another died before the rest of the crew made it to shore.

Many of the homes here, had from 6 inches to 2 feet of water flooding them as heavy rain fell on the right side of the hurricane. Heavy damage to home furnishings, electric motors and automobiles were common throughout the city.

Texas City
In Texas City, 90 percent of all structures suffered either water damage or complete destruction and the residents were discouraged from going to shelters due to a polio epidemic there.

Many of the plant sites producing war materials were damaged from high winds and water. The Pan American Refinery continued operations throughout the storm. Lack of weather reports in time to prepare for the storm was blamed by plant officials. They considered it too great a risk to try to shut down during the storm and get the employees to safety. Only minor damage was reported. The site officials were severe in condemning the lack of adequate storm warnings.

La Porte
Pioneers of the La Porte area, men and women who had been through all of the hurricanes since the Great 1900 Storm agreed that this blow was as hard as any of the others they had experienced. The high school's physical education building was reduced from a three story building to just one floor as the wind blew out all the windows on the north side and knocked down support beams, which caused the roof to collapse. At nearby Morgan's Point, a water tower was blown down. The nearby Houston Yacht Club was also heavily damaged. Many that lived in La Porte at this time rated this worse than Hurricane Carla which struck this area in 1961 as it came ashore almost 100 miles away at Port O Connor, Texas and later Hurricane Alicia in 1983 which made landfall near the western end of Galveston Island.

Baytown (Tri-Cities Area)
Today, Baytown city limits contain the older communities of Pelly and Goose Creek. This was probably the hardest hit area in the hurricane's path. The huge Humble Oil and Refining Company, now Exxon, at Baytown recorded wind gusts of 132 mph on one of their wind anemometers. At the time of the storm, it was the production leader of the Allied Forces supply of aviation fuel. At least four large cooling towers were demolished and other damage caused suspension production. It's toluene production was also very important to the war effort, being an ingredient of the high explosive, TNT. Refineries at Texas City, and Deer Park joined the list of war production being suspended as they were also badly damaged as the hurricane seemed to build as it crossed the warm waters of Galveston Bay. Locations along the west and southern shore of Galveston Bay were flooded as it s waters were pushed in front of the high winds. All over Chambers and Jefferson counties, oil derricks went down.

Ellington Field
Ellington Field was used as a U.S. Army Air Corp. training school for air cadets during the war. It was located about 16 miles southeast of Houston, Texas. Many air cadets and soldiers were injured during the storm at Ellington Field. Hundreds of air cadets marched out with their trouser legs rolled up to join the soldiers on the flight ramp in staking down the planes that hadn t been flown out in the threat of the hurricane. As the winds started to increase to hurricane force, cadets and soldiers held onto the wings of the planes to keep them from going airborne. At times, some of them were working in water hip deep. Gusts as high as 132 mph were recorded by the wind anemometer located on top of one of the hangers, just before it blew away. Not only the wind recorder, but the top of the hanger it was attached to. At least 22 of the cadets and soldiers ended up in the base hospital. At lease five planes were lost.

Deer Park
In Deer Park, the Shell Oil Refinery battled against the storm until the cooling towers started flying apart. The strengthening winds struck here at shift change, so many couldn t make it to the plant to relieve those that had been there all day. Most had to ride the storm out on site instead of being home taking care of their families. Along with Baytown s Humble Oil Refinery, they produced aviation fuel needed for the Allied War effort. Without the cooling towers, production came to an abrupt halt. Quick thinking by management, had a new cooling tower ordered as the winds were still raging. One of the supervisors raced into Houston just ahead of the hurricane to send out the order.

Houston
All three of the areas radio stations were knocked off the air after losing power. Without radio, the greater Houston area became deaf to any other warnings. Earlier much of the telephone service and power had already failed. Many people in downtown were trapped where they were and took shelter in buildings where they worked. Many took shelter in the City Auditorium and the Coliseum along with the National Guard Units.

Weather Advisories Confusion
Getting verification from the Weather Bureau on the weather condition during the storm was very confusing to many. The most confusing was the difference between the wind velocity reported downtown and at the airport. Houston's Weather Bureau Chief, Norquest stated that the airport instrument is an anemograph, which records on a graph the peak velocities of a gust as well as the valleys and pulses in the wind. The instantaneous gust might reach 132 miles per hour for an instant. The cup instrument is balanced out over a tested period. He said that both instruments were official, but served two different purposes. Because all weather information had to be cleared through New Orleans office, delays in posting weather reports were confusing. Advisories were 2 - 3 hours late sometimes. Forecasts of the storm asked by reporters were refused. Later as the hurricane approached the city of Houston, barometer readings were also cut off by the weather bureau.

The last official advisory which the local Weather Bureau said would be released on the hurricane was as follows...

"Hurricane of small diameter central 1:30 C. W. T. about 30 miles west northwest of Houston now moving only eight to ten miles per hour attended by winds of about 70 miles per hour over very small area near the center.

"Further decrease in wind velocity near center but will probably reach 45 to 60 miles per hour in squalls in path, reaching area around Navasota by daybreak. Indications are the disturbance will continue west northwestward movement during morning with gradual decrease in wind near the center.

"All coastal warnings expire at 8:30 a.m. C. W. T. Wednesday."


The last advisory was released by the local Weather Bureau at 6:30 a.m., but it was issued at 3 p.m. Wednesday. The exact time of the 132 mile per hour gust and the several 100 mile per gusts were nor available from the Weather Bureau. When asked by reporters why the times weren't available as well as the barometer readings the day after the storm the reply was... "We had the records showing the exact times, but we don't have those records now. Do you get the distinction?" "We had the records but disposed of them." On the subject of the barometer readings, the reporters were told, "It is not a time of stress today and we are not giving out such readings." He said it was only during periods of stress that the Weather Bureau is advised to release barometer readings.

The First Flight Into A Hurricane's Eye
(as recalled by Lt. Colonel (retired) Ralph O Hair)

On the morning of July 27th, 1943, British pilots were being trained in the new field of "Instrument" flying at Bryan Field by the lead instructor, Colonel Joe Duckworth. This morning, word was being spread that a hurricane was coming ashore near Galveston and that the planes at the field may have to be flown out for safety. Many of the British pilots were already "Aces" from earlier battles over Europe and felt that they deserved to be trained in the top fighters that the United States had to offer, not this AT-6 "Texan" Trainer. When they heard that the planes may have to be flown away from the storm, they really started gigging the instructors about the frailty of their trainer. The problem was that few, if any European had ever experienced a true hurricane. They thought it was just another big thunderstorm. Finally Colonel Duckworth had enough of the ribbing and whining of these pilots and bet them that he could fly the "Texan" into the storm and back, showing that both the plane and his instrument flying technique was sound. Well the bet was on. A highball to the winner! Colonel Duckworth then looked across the breakfast table at Lieutenant Ralph O'Hair, the only navigator at the field that morning and asked him to fly with him. O'Hair was taken back by the bet but agreed to fly with him, due to the respect he had for Duckworth s skill as a pilot. Since they felt that Headquarters wouldn t approve the flight due to the risk of the aircraft and the crew, they decided to do it without official permission. The main problem that passed through Lt. O'Hair's mind was that if their single engine quit for some reason like being flooded out from the heavy rain, they would be in deep trouble. As they closed on the hurricane which was now ashore, he thought about what it would be like if he had to use the parachute. As they approached the storm at a height of between four thousand to nine thousand feet the air became very turbulent. He described the flight now as like, "being tossed about like a stick in a dog's mouth." The rain was very heavy as the flew through the darkness, fighting the updrafts and downdrafts.

Suddenly they broke into the eye of the storm. This was not the purpose of the flight, but really an accident. The sky was filled with bright clouds and it seemed that they were surrounded by a shower curtain of darker clouds. A they looked down they could see the country side. The storm had indeed moved inland. O'Hair described the shape of the center as like a leaning cone. The lower section dragging a bit behind due to the friction from contact with the land. The eye seemed to be about nine or 10 miles across and they circled inside. As they exited the eye, the dark overcast and heavy rain again pounded them until they made their way out of the storm and back towards Bryan Field. As they arrived back at the field, the weather officer, Lieutenant William Jones-Burdick asked to be flow into the storm, so O'Hair jumped out and the weather officer flew off into the hurricane with Duckworth. After that flight, Bryan Field became a Mecca for Allied pilots wanting to learn the fine art of "Instrument Flying". That night the bet was paid and no more comments were given on the sturdiest of the AT-6 "Texan" trainer. That was also the last flight into a hurricane for Lt. O'Hair.

Censorship Of Weather Information
The news of this hurricane was heavily censored by the government due to national security. The loss of production of war materials couldn t be found out by the Axis Powers. This was 1943 and the tides in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of war were finally starting to turn. There was a report that the FBI shutdown the telegraph office in La Porte because someone had sent a telegram out of the state informing someone of the damages from the hurricane. The only news of the hurricane was published in the two states that were affected, Texas and Louisiana. After this hurricane, never again were advisories censored from the public. War or no war, the risk to human life is too great.

This was a lesson learned.

Author's Note of Thanks
I have been researching this hurricane for many years and have been surprised how little official information I have been able to find. My Dad's family moved to the area in the 1930's. While growing up, I was told stories of this storm by family members. Later as my job assignment with Dupont as the hurricane preparedness information resource for our coastal sites, I tried to learn more about this hurricane. I would seek information from different sources but usually came away with little or nothing. I fear that in the near future, less will become know about this strange storm with most of the survivors passing on.

I want to thank the many "Old Timers" who sat down and gave me information that couldn t be found elsewhere. Discussing that first flight into the eye of a hurricane with retired Lt. Co. Ralph O'Hair, was a real thrill. Special thanks to my Dad's brothers and sisters who passed their stories of the storm to me. Fellow Duponter and La Porte historian, Jim Counts filled many gaps on the storm that made me realize that this hurricane was worth researching. When I showed, fellow author of this paper, Bill Read, the MIC of the NWS Houston/Galveston Field Office, what information I had been able to gather, he became excited and became a great help in opening many official doors.

We would like to ask anyone with information on this hurricane to please contact us. We are looking for photographs, newspaper clippings, eye-witness accounts, and official records including graphs. Please note that this paper is just a small collection of information that we have uncovered.



REFERENCES

  • THE HOUSTON CHRONICLE - July 26 - 30, 1943
  • THE HOUSTON PRESS - July 26 - 30, 1943
  • THE HOUSTON POST - July 26 - 30, 1943
  • THE DAILY SUN (Baytown Texas) -July 26 -30, 1943
  • THE TEXAS CITY SUN - July 26 - 30, 1943
  • A Report on the Hurricane Damage of July 27, 1943
  • In Houston, Galveston, Beaumont Area in Texas - Fire Companies Adjustment Bureau, INC. , 1943
  • THE HURRICANE ALMANAC - 1988 TEXAS EDITION - Ellis, Mike - 1988
  • THE HURRICANE HUNTERS - Tannehill, Ivan Ray - 1955
  • BAYTOWN VIGNETTES - One Hundred and Fifty Years in the History of a Texas Gulf Coast Community - Britt, John and Tyssen, Muriel - 1992
  • SHELL AT DEER PARK - The First Fifty Years - Wells, Barbara
  • INTERVIEW - Jim Counts, La Porte, TX
  • INTERVIEW - Lt. Col. Ralph O'Hair
  • INTERVIEW - Members of the Fincher Family
  • INTERVIEW - Bert Schroeder
  • PHOTOGRAPHS - Mrs. Schoeder
  • THE NOAA LIBRARY - Miami, FL.
  • THE NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER LIBRARY - Miami, FL
  • THE ROSENBURG LIBRARY - Galveston, TX
  • THE TEXAS ROOM OF THE CITY OF HOUSTON LIBRARY - Houston, TX
  • THE STERLING LIBRARY - Baytown, TX
  • THE LA PORTE LIBRARY - La Porte, TX
  • SCHRODER'S BOOK HAVEN (Rare Texana book dealer) - League City, TX
  • HURRTRAK EM/PRO - P. C. Weather Products


Any comments or questions of this paper can be addressed to:

Lew Fincher
Dupont
PO Box 347
La Porte, Texas 77571
e-mail: info@hurricaneconsulting.net


Bill Read
NWS
1620 Gill Road
Dickinson, Texas 77539
e-mail: bill.read@noaa.gov

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