Montana Voices: To 10-year-old, Hurricane Carla was a grand adventure

Hurricanes are an awful display of nature’s power to crush our feeble claim on this planet. To a 10-year-old boy living near the Texas coast, they also can be a delightful adventure.

David Crisp

My brother Joe, who still lives in our hometown of Victoria, Texas, just survived the second-worst hurricane to ever hit that city. He and his family are fine. They spent the worst two days last weekend in the hospitals where they work. The hospitals are sturdy and almost impregnable to wind, but they became unpleasant when the air conditioning went out. When the water went out, they became uninhabitable.

The patients were evacuated to other hospitals around the state, and Joe and his wife, Linda, headed north. They spent one night in the very last motel room available in Moulton, Texas, before heading on to Georgetown, north of Austin. There they are staying with my brother John, who retired from his longtime teaching job in Corpus Christi just in time to miss Hurricane Harvey.

As best Joe could tell, wind damage in our hometown wasn’t too severe – mostly signs and trees knocked down. At this writing, the Guadalupe River was still rising, and while parts of the city are vulnerable to flooding, his house seems to be on solid ground.

Let’s hope the luck holds. Victoria was a town of some 16,000 people when I was born there, about 25 miles from the coast and just 97 feet above sea level. The population is close to 70,000 now, but the city hasn’t gained any altitude or moved any farther from the Gulf of Mexico.

Still, it’s rare for Victoria to make the national news. There was the mosque that burned in January in an apparent hate crime, and an overstuffed and abandoned truck in 2003 that killed 19 aliens who were being smuggled into Texas.

But hurricanes are usually required for Victoria to make the news. Hurricane Harvey brought back memories to all three of us of the biggest storm that ever hit the city: Hurricane Carla, which pummeled Victoria with wind speeds of 150 mph in 1961.

I was 10 years old at the time. Joe was a year younger, John a year-and-a-half older. When we talked about our recollections of that storm on a conference call this week, we all said just about the same thing in almost the same words: We were too dumb at the time to know just how dangerous the situation was.

We knew that hurricanes posed a threat to South Texas. Our family’s visits to the coast often included a stop at Indianola, which was once second to Galveston as Texas’ most thriving seaport. By 1961, only scant signs of the town were visible.

In 1875, about 5,000 people lived there, but a hurricane all but wiped out Indianola, killing at least 150 people. Those stalwart Texans who survived said they weren’t going to be discouraged by one little ol’ hurricane and promptly rebuilt.

But just 11 years later, in 1886, the town was hammered again. One hurricane was OK, but two – that was a different matter. The town gave up the ghost, and some of the surviving houses were moved to Victoria, where they still stand.

Galveston residents got the message: They needed to build a sea wall to protect their own exposed city. But given Texans’ resistance to any infrastructure that doesn’t involve roads, they didn’t get around to building a wall before that town was all but wiped out by the “Mighty Storm” of 1900.

We knew all this, and in 1961, there was plenty of reason to worry about Hurricane Carla. My father preached in La Grange, about 75 miles away, and we drove there and back every Sunday. By the time we hit the road for Victoria after the evening service on Sept 10, the storm was raging, and we were met by a steady stream of cars going the other way to get out of its path. We were driving into the teeth of it.

Back at home, as we tried to unload the car, the trunk lid banged up and down so hard that it bent the edge of the trunk and smacked John in the head. It was an injury, he joked, from which he has never fully recovered.

Inside, my parents noticed that one corner of the roof was pulling away from the house. They grabbed a stepladder and hammer and nailed down the roof in the driving wind and rain. As we tried to sleep, the TV antenna screamed and howled in the night.

The next morning, we drove a mile or two to my uncle’s house, which we considered to be of more solid construction. As we drove away from our house, my parents were no doubt wondering whether they would ever see it again. I was wondering what would happen to our three pet chickens: Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis (whose name was changed to Betsy after she laid her first egg) and The Last of the Mochickens.

Various relatives gathered at my uncle’s house, whiling away the afternoon by playing 42, a domino game, on the screened back porch. John recalled that the weather station stopped reporting the wind speed when the wind gauge blew away at 114 mph. But at one point, one of the wives heard on the transistor radio that a 170-mph gust was on its way. A moment later, an immense “whump” shook the porch.

From my uncle’s place, we could see my grandmother’s house as her TV antenna blew down.

After dark, the wind slackened when the hurricane’s eye passed over us. We went out to the car and unloaded our bedding in the eerie quiet. As the wind picked back up, we went to bed, spread out on floors and furniture around the house.

Unexpectedly, the power came back on late that evening. The worst of the storm had abated by morning, and we drove home after a pancake breakfast, wondering what we would find.

The news was nearly all good. The roof had lost shingles but was intact. The TV antenna lay flat on the roof, never to scream again. Our basketball goal had blown over.

But that was about it. The house was fine. Even the chickens were OK.

Carla killed 34 Texans and damaged more than 50,000 homes. But none of us can remember that we ever felt scared. If our parents were afraid, they never showed it. To us kids, Carla was a fine adventure, a day of novelty and excitement.

Joe said that it wasn’t until 1988, when he had small children of his own and Hurricane Gilbert was threatening the coast, that he ever felt fear of a storm. Nothing like growing up to take the fun out of a natural disaster.

David Crisp is a longtime Billings journalist and college professor who writes a weekly column for Last Best News.