1919: Lost In The Storm

On Sat. Sept. 13, 1919,  Sarah Elizabeth White, accompanied her daughter, Bessie, son in law, Hugh and her two young grandchildren, Mary 3 and Lois 2,  for a vacation on North Beach, Padre Island, Corpus Christi.  In less than 48 hrs, all would be lost.

Earlier in the week, reports from New Orleans National Weather Service,  of a severe storm off the Florida coast had drawn little attention around Corpus Christi. The newly burgeoning resort town was known to be the safest place on the coast, shielded from storm threats by  the barrier islands, Mustang and St. Joe’s. The bluffs overlooking Nueces Bay rose 40 feet above the beach, offering an added buffer in the event of a flood.

Even as late as Saturday,  warnings were ignored that the hurrican could reach Texas. The consensus was that it would curve up to hit Louisiana.  Meteorologists of the time relied on reports from ships at sea to pinpoint the location of storms, but because most vessels had left the area or were already caught up in the hurricane, the weather service was left in the dark.

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On Saturday, though uncommonly windy, it was a hot and sunny day, the beaches packed and with winds calming by nightfall, the storm warning flags were lowered.  During the night, the winds returned and heavy rain began to pour.  By morning the tides began to rise. An hour and a half later, at 9:30 am, meteorologists finally issued a statement urging people in low lying areas to leave for high ground.

Many of those who heard the warnings that morning and dispite the driving rain, still held little fear.  Sometime after noon, the eye of the storm made landfall about 25 miles south of Corpus Christi, which put the city and the resort communities to the north directly in the path of the hurricane’s deadly right-front quadrant. Winds along this section of the storm topped 125 mph!

Having lived through hurricanes in Corpus, in the midst of the storm you pray for the eye of it.  The eye of a hurricane is the eeriest place I’ve ever been.  One moment you’re in straight line torrential rain driven by winds so fierce that it rips towering palm trees from the ground by their roots, the next…..dead calm.  Not a blade of grass stirs, absolute still as if standing in a vacuum and absolute silence. The reprieve will not last. You are but waiting for the other side of the storm to slam into you.

The storm surged, rapidly raising the tide with crashing waves up to 16ft high, acting like powerful battering rams, destroying everything in their paths.  The storm surge destroyed the causeway connecting Portland with Corpus Christi, cutting off any escape from the North Beach area. To make matters worse, the surge ruptured oil storage tankers anchored in Aransas Bay, sending a slick of heavy crude across Corpus Christi Bay.

Once the surge bridged  the barrier islands, nothing could stop it’s destructive path. The tide rising 5 feet in less than an hour, the surge eventually topped 11 feet as it moved through downtown Corpus Christi, crushing buildings and destroying everything in its path.

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Monday morning, 108 broken and battered bodies  washed up on North Beach, coated in heavy black crude oil leaked from wrecked tankers, making identification of the dead nearly impossible. Bodies where pulled from the debris and carried by mule pulled carts to makeshift morgues in nearby schoolhouses.  Any identifying objects, recorded then placed in temporary mass graves.

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North beach cleanup

The official death toll for the Corpus Christ area was 287 as per officials wanting to downplay the numbers but realistic estimates put the total at between 600 and 1,000.

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45 years later, my mom and I, Sarah Elizabeth’s 3rd great niece, on North Beach.

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