Countdown To Hurricane Carla
Labor Day Week '61: Happy Days Draw To An End
(Third In Series Of Articles)
BY BERT C. WEST
There was little thought of hurricanes around the Palacios area during Labor Day Holiday Weekend, Sept. 2-4, 1961. There was the Saturday night Chamber of Commerce-sponsored dance on the Pavilion; grand opening festivities of Blessing's the new American Legion post home on Sunday; and the Chamber of Commerce boat races on Palacios' East Bay on Monday.
The rest of the week would be focused on the season's opening football game between the Sharks and Tidehaven Tigers. Or so, it was thought.
Right in the middle of the weekend, on Sunday, Sept. 3, a depression from a large cluster of thunderstorms had formed in the southwestern Caribbean, between Colombia and Nicaragua. It was the birth of Hurricane Carla.
Palacians may have become aware, but only in passing, that a new storm was brewing, far away from local bay shores, on Monday, Sept. 4, when the Weather Bureau issued its first advisories. The Weather Bureau had installed its first network of powerful weather radars, but forecasters had yet to have access to the polar orbiters that would allow them to look at weather from space. Hurricane reconnaissance aircraft was in its heyday with daily flights into the tropics by Air Force and Navy crews.
The season's first hurricane, Anna, had been on the scene back on July 20-24, but attracted little attention when it moved across the Lesser Antilles and swept through the Caribbean into British Honduras. Winds reached hurricane force but the storm was small and damage was minor.
Neither was little regard paid Hurricane Betsy, which formed on Sept. 2--just a day before Carla, between the Lesser Antilles and Cape Verde Islands. Betsy recurved out into the open Atlantic and was an average hurricane (Ironically, Betsy went off the storm books on Sept. 11--the day Carla smashed into Palacios).
Besides, the newsy scene in the summer and early fall of '61 was dominated by the Cold War which was building up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is not surprising that Civil Defense (as Emergency Management was called then) was more focused on preparing for the survival of a nuclear attack. One plan Civil Defense was working on was the evacuation of large segments of the population. The "conventional wisdom" in 1961 was that it could not be done.
The Weather Bureau's first mention on what would be Carla came at 11 a.m., Labor Day Monday, Sept. 4 when it reported: "The showery area noted yesterday (Sunday) morning in the Caribbean has steadily intensified and a tropical depression has formed about 250 miles east southeast of Cape Gracias, Nicaragua. It appears to be drifting slowly west northwestward.....A reconnaissance plane will investigate the area this afternoon."
At 6 p.m. that Monday, the depression have been found to be just 40 miles in diameter. Two hours later, the gale-area was 200 miles wide, with winds about 40 mph. It was then named Carla and a program of regular advisories began.
On that same Monday night, there was a well-attended Labor Day night dance on the Palacios Pavilion, to the music of "The Jokers." That was, apparently, the last dance to ever be held on the beloved Pavilion.
As Carla began its erratic and slow moving track over the Caribbean and into the Gulf of Mexico, it was still life as usual in the Palacios area. School resumed on Tuesday after the holiday.
In his book, "....and the winds blew," that detailed the hour-by-hour life of Carla, author Harry Estill Moore said the Weather Bureau pronounced Carla a hurricane at 5 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 6., when she was in the Yucatan Channel, about 200 miles from the entrance to the Gulf. The storm was reported in the Gulf at 11 a.m. Thursday.
At first, the storm's course was projected to Alabama or, if it turned‹ like most hurricanes, across Florida. A watch, from Morgan City, La., to the Florida panhandle went up at 4 p.m. Thursday when the Weather Bureau also said, for the first time: "Hurricane Carla is a very large storm and continues to intensify. Indications are it will become a major hurricane by Friday." The report did not mention that Carla had actually turned slightly more westward!
The first advice to evacuate, along the middle and eastern Gulf Coast, was sounded at 7 p.m. Thursday.
On that same Thursday, the Beacon reported 2,213 cotton bales had been ginned from the good-looking 1961 Palacios area crop to date. That night, the "B" Sharks lost their football opener to Clear Creek, 16-10. The jayvees scored on Dalton Mannon's 20-yard TD pass and 2-point conversion pass, both to Jack Brune; plus Tony Pardo's 60-yard runback of a pass theft.
On Friday, Sept. 8, Carla seemed to constantly change courses. Forecasters extended the watch westward to take in Louisiana and all of the Texas coast. Evacuations sped up all along the Louisiana coast and were starting in southeast Texas.
As Texas moved into Carla's potential strike zone, President Kennedy telephoned Texas Governor Price Daniel to offer "all possible assistance" to Texas. Daniel alerted the entire Texas National Guard for possible emergency duty and one engineer battalion went on duty at Port Arthur. The U.S. armed forces were also pitching in. The Fourth Army offered of all its facilities in four states. A U.S. Navy helicopter fished eight men off an oil rig in Lagunda Madre, west of Corpus Christi.
That Friday night, under overcast skies, the varsity Sharks kicked off their football season with a 22-0 win over Tidehaven.
By Saturday morning, Carla was in the middle of the Gulf moving slowly northwest toward Texas with winds of 135 mph. Forecasters were now pinpointing the upper Texas coast or southwestern Louisiana for Carla's landfall--on Sunday. Later that day, the warning was extended to Port Aransas as the storm continued moving northwest.
At least 150,000 people were said to be fleeing inland from the Louisiana and Texas coasts. The Red Cross described it as the "greatest evacuation of persons in the face of a natural calamity in modern times."
On Sunday, Sept. 10, the San Antonio Express reported most of the 135,000 people in the Port Arthur area had fled. That evening, a reporter from the Houston Press arrived in Palacios, to eyewitness Carla from the sanctuary of Wagner General Hospital, with some 81 other refugees.
Next Week: Part 4Palacios battens down and the Sept. 11 timetable.
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