Houston and Galveston, like any cities along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the U.S., are always vulnerable to tropical weather. The scariest of these events is most definitely the hurricane, with its fierce winds and massive storm surge. But, other types of tropical weather can cause significant damage as well. Tropical Storm Claudette dropped a U.S. record 42 inches of rain in 24 hours on the Alvin area, a record that still stands to this day.
Since hurricane season opens June 1 and we are approaching the anniversary of Tropical Storm Allison, it seemed logical to revisit some of the devastation of years past, if for nothing more than as a reminder of what a nasty tropical weather system can do with both wind and water.
5. Hurricane Alicia (1983) Alicia traveled right up I-45 from Galveston into Houston in late August, 1983. I was a teenager and I remember trees snapping outside my parents' house in north Houston and the tornado that uprooted an oak tree in our front yard. The storm dumped over ten inches of rain on the city and generated wind gusts over 100 mph throughout the area. It caused over $2.6 billion in damage (worth about twice that in today's numbers) from wind and flooding and killed 21 people. It is notable that, during the last 15 years of increased storm activity, we rarely see the first named storm this late in the year.
4. Unnamed Hurricane (1915) Before 1950, storms weren't given names, but it didn't mean they were any less destructive. The 1915 category four storm that hit Galveston is evidence. This giant hurricane was the first test of Galveston's new seawall and, while it did provide some protection, the 16-foot storm surge still flooded the city. That, along with the 120 mph sustained winds, destroyed the causeway bridge. Fortunately, thanks to the newly built seawall, there was minimal loss of life compared to the disaster 15 years prior. Overall damage, by today's standards, would be in the billions.
3. Hurricane Ike (2008) Most of us remember this one pretty well. This huge storm ballooned up to category four size before making landfall as a category two. Despite the reduction in wind speed and pressure, an incredible 20-foot storm surge wiped out most of the east end of Galveston Island and completely obliterated entire communities along Bolivar Peninsula. More than 100 people died and there are still 34 missing. Damage totals have been estimated near $30 billion.
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2. Tropical Storm Allison (2001) Weather forecasters have referred to Tropical Storm Allison as a "perfect weather event," but that really depends on your definition of perfect. Allison struck near Galveston as your garden-variety tropical storm, but it wound around in the state, eventually stopping right on top of Houston, dumping 40 inches of rain total in southeast Texas and estimates of 36 inches in the Houston area in 24 hours. This "100-year flood" inundated and destroyed homes that had never flooded previously. Bayous, supposedly designed to handle such events, poured out of their banks and the end result was over $6 billion in damage. Allison was the costliest tropical storm in U.S. history and the only non-hurricane to ever have its name retired.
1. Unnamed Hurricane (1900) The Galveston hurricane of 1900 may very well be the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States. It most certainly was the deadliest, killing an estimated 8,000 people, though some believe the total was closer to 12,000, most whom were carried away with the storm surge on Galveston Island, leading to the building of the 15-foot seawall. Most of the buildings on the island were destroyed -- the few that survived are now historical icons. The category four storm delivered 120 mph winds and a 15-foot storm surge that nearly destroyed Galveston.
Hurricane Carla (1961) This devastating storm remains one of the largest and most powerful hurricanes ever to hit the Gulf Coast. Despite widespread damage in the Houston area, the fact that the storm made landfall south of Galveston near Port Lavaca spared us from what could have been a much, much worse fate.