Hurricane force winds make for dramatic television news coverage, but floodwaters in a storm’s aftermath often claim more lives and wreak greater property damage. It was something I learned early in my career as a newspaper reporter living and working along the Texas Gulf Coast.
It’s also why I will not judge Hurricane Harvey until it dissipates days from now.
Tropical Storm Amelia made landfall in Corpus Christi in August 1978, a weak storm that caused only minor coastal damage. Days would go by before I and everyone else in Texas would learn that a poorly organized tropical storm would leave behind unimagined death and destruction.
I was a young reporter working at the Corpus Christi Caller in 1978. As Amelia formed in the Texas Gulf, I was dispatched to South Padre Island, which I knew well from my prior reporting job at the Brownsville Herald and years living on the border.
Only one year earlier, I had covered Hurricane Anita as it barreled toward Brownsville, only to turn inward and hit the state of Tamaulipas on the northeastern Mexican coast. Riding out that storm within the safety of the thick walls of the historic Yacht Club in Port Isabel gave me a full appreciation of hurricane force winds, rainfall, and storm surge.
South Padre Island back then was still a fairly sleepy destination, more wood houses on stilts than high-rise condominium towers and hotels. Amelia did little damage and I was quickly recalled home to Corpus.
Only then did Amelia’s destructive force become evident as it moved inland past San Antonio and then stalled over the Texas Hill Country.
A team of Caller reporters and photographers were dispatched to the Hill Country where 14 inches of rain fell in a single night in Bandera, bringing the Guadalupe River out of its banks and raging through the towns along its meander. Kerrville received 22 inches of rain in a 48-hour period.
Area law enforcement, limited by the rising floodwaters, scrambled heroically in response to reports of drowning victims, missing persons swept away by rising waters, and thousands of residents left homeless and in need of shelter and medical attention. Some survivors were rescued after spending the night clinging to tree tops above the raging rivers.
The National Weather Service had issued warnings of rising rivers and floodwaters throughout the Hill Country, but no one was prepared for such a disaster. Bandera, Comfort, Medina, Ingram, and parts of Kerrville were ravaged by Amelia.
Kerrville looked like a war zone with the arrival of military personnel, helicopters, military vehicles, and a small tent city.
It was my first trip to the Hill Country, and I watched in disbelief as herds of panicked whitetail deer congregated on spits of roadway above the floodwaters as we gingerly made our way along narrow back roads, navigating countless uprooted heritage cypress and oak trees. It was the first time I witnessed an entire home carried away by the river, only its sloped roof bobbing above the surface.
Gov. Dolph Briscoe called it one of the worst floods in the state’s history and petitioned the Carter administration for federal emergency assistance. President Jimmy Carter declared a national disaster in six Hill Country counties.
The Texas National Guard, some U.S. army units, and other area law enforcement joined local police and sheriff’s deputies in rescue efforts that covered hundreds of square miles all at once.
Hundreds of children trapped in Hill Country summer camps in and around Hunt were carried to safety by soldiers and uniformed police and firemen who braved river currents and floodwaters. High schools and churches were hastily converted into makeshift shelters. Desperate parents arrived, seeking to be reunited with their children.
In the end, 33 people were left dead and more than $110 million in property damage was tallied, a figure that surely would be $1 billion or more in today’s more developed and populated Hill Country.
Early indications Saturday suggest that Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm, could have done far more damage had it struck Corpus Christi rather than make landfall to the less populated coastline to the northeast.
Yet it would be premature to assess the storm’s impact as we watch it weaken. The dramatic on-air “standups” by television reporters outfitted in storm gear and shouting into microphones through howling coastal winds have now passed, but it’s the intensity of the inland rainfall and rising floodwaters that we really should be watching.
Already the flooding in and around Houston has claimed five lives and caused substantial property damage, and only now are we gaining a sense of the damage done in Rockport and other coastal communities.
San Antonio was spared this time, but only days from now, when the winds and rain subside and floodwaters recede, will we be able to measure the full impact of Hurricane Harvey.