“Storms and inundations have always sent shivers along my spine, even in the contemplation of them.” Essay

On many occasions, Howard loved to hop in his Chevy and take off on a trip to some destination in his beloved Texas. Here he relates a story about a trip down to the south Texas coast to H.P. Lovecraft in an October 1931 letter:

Nature is a grim old mistress, as she has proved time and again, in Galveston and elsewhere. Storms and inundations have always sent shivers along my spine, even in the contemplation of them. Anything you can’t fight is horrible. You can’t shoot or cut a hurricane nor brain a flood with a bludgeon. All you can do is die like sheep — a most detestable end. I wouldn’t live on the coast for that reason — although destructive wind storms are not uncommon in this country. I have noted a tendency to resent remarks concerning the possibility of future catastrophes, among the people of the Coast. Just as Californians speak of the earthquake as “the big fire” and resent comments regarding earthquakes. I remember a night I spent at Rockport, a little port not very far from Corpus Christi. I stayed in a big rambling hotel close to the water’s edge, and learned that in one of the more recent hurricanes — one which did great damage in Corpus Christi — a derelict hull rammed the hotel and almost demolished one side of it. But the proprietor of the hotel waxed irritable at the suggestion that the town might fall prey to another hurricane some time, and he said that Rockport was in no more danger from the elements than any other town in the country. Not wanting to antagonize the man, I agreed with him, commenting on the peril of oceanic inundation of Denver, Colorado, and the risk of tropical storms run by the inhabitants of Butte, Montana, and Madison, South Dakota. But he seemed to suspect a hint of irony in my innocent remarks, and thereafter treated me coolly.

Hurricane season just ended a few days ago and as someone who has lived his entire life on the Texas Gulf Coast, I can sympathize with the innkeeper’s sentiment about hurricanes. I think Howard misunderstood what his host was stating. It was not so much a sense of resentment he was expressing, but more likely a sense of futility. That is, there will always be another storm and while other locations in the country did not have to deal with hurricanes, they had their own weather related and natural disasters to contend with.

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As for the hurricane that Howard references in his letter, it would appear to be the “big one” that ravaged Corpus Christi and the surrounding area in September of 1919. Between 1919 and the date of Howard’s visit, there were several other storms that came ashore in that same area of the Texas Coast, but none as devastating as the 1919 storm. Here is a description of the storm from the NOAA website:

September 14-16th, 1919: A severe hurricane formed just east of the Virgin Islands on the 1st of September. It gained much of its strength between Santo Domingo and the Central Bahamas, one of the favored areas for major hurricane development (track to right). The pressure at Key West fell to 28.81? as the storm passed by on the 9-10th ; gales were experienced for 26 ? hours due to the storm’s slow movement. The Sand Key Weather Bureau station was abandoned at 1 PM on the 9th. The anemometer was blown away as winds passed 84 mph and the pressure fell to 28.35? at midnight. As it moved over the Dry Tortugas on the 10th, the pressure had dived to 27.51?…a nearby ship reported a pressure of 27.36?. Ten vessels were lost in the Florida Straits, among them included a ship with 488 people on board. Gales began along the entire Gulf coast, yet the Weather Bureau had difficulty keeping track of it due to very few ship reports. Storm warnings were hoisted on the 11th for Texas. People from Galveston took no chances and prepared for the impending cyclone. Fish invaded the Corpus Christi Bay in great numbers that day. On the 12th, a ship about 300 miles south of New Orleans reported a pressure of 27.50?…and Galveston already had a storm surge of 8.8 feet.

Rumors had spread that the hurricane made landfall in Louisiana and Mississippi and the storm warnings were dropped. Even as the Bay became frothy early on the 14th, the Weather Bureau advised it would be smaller than the 1916 hurricane, and winds would only be 40 mph. Soon after, hurricane flags were put back up. Padre and Brazos Islands were quickly submerged. West winds of 40 to 50 mph swept the Lower Rio Grande valley, damaging a few buildings. Brownsville reported 4.75? of rain during the storm; see chart on the right for rainfall records set during this hurricane. Later that day, the storm moved inland 25 miles south of Corpus Christi while the storm continued its slow forward trek, putting the city in the dreaded right-front quadrant of the system, where the highest winds and storm surges normally occur. Corpus Christi’s number was finally up. Winds of 110 mph and a pressure of 28.65? were experienced. Storm surge there was sixteen feet.

Timbers from the docks at Port Aransas became battering rams, destroying buildings on their way inland. Residents on North Beach took an 18 hour trip across Nueces Bay, but it was no pleasure cruise. People clung to whatever they could find to survive the trip amongst ten foot waves. Fifteen hundred cattle were driven off Padre Island into the Laguna Madre. After the storm, the beaches were littered with debris and bodies, which were quickly buried in a mass grave near White Point. A ten foot storm surge along the Matagorda peninsula inundated the area, causing damage to agriculture.

The S.A.U. & G. railroad west of Odem was washed out. Summer houses in Victoria were leveled and the cotton crop was destroyed. An eight foot storm surge overwashed Sabine Pass. At Port Aransas, the steamship Media was lifted onto the docks. As the storm passed inland, San Antonio saw the pressure fall to 29.48? and winds southeast of 34 mph. Over 310 lives were lost. Heavy rains were experienced across much of Texas (see map above (after Ward & Grice)). Damage estimates were at $20 million. During the storm’s life, Miami, Burrwood in Louisiana, and Galveston all reported winds at least as high as 60 mph, indicating this storm’s large size. This storm led to a breakwater off Corpus Christi in 1925, and ultimately to their seawall by 1940.

The Corpus Christi hurricane of 1919 remains one of the most intense in Texas history. A total of 287 people died in the 1919 hurricane. The sixteen foot storm surge inundated the low-lying areas of Corpus Christi, destroying almost all of the wooden buildings there. The nearby city of Port Aransas was nearly totally demolished. One of those who survived the storm was a young man named Robert Simpson, who would go on to a distinguished career as Director of the National Hurricane Center. Simpson was co-founder of the Saffir-Simpson Scale which is used to classify hurricanes by intensity.