HolyCoast: My Hurricane Story - Hurricane Celia, Corpus Christi, TX, August 3, 1970

My Hurricane Story - Hurricane Celia, Corpus Christi, TX, August 3, 1970

(I've updated this story with photos I found while digging around in a memory box in my garage.  They're black-and-white, taken on a pretty cheap camera, and 40 years old, so bear with me.)

I figured this would be as good a time as any to tell my August, 1970 hurricane story. Keep in mind that I was 14 at the time, so some of the brain cells which stored the hurricane story may have departed this world in the 40 years since then, but I'll do my best to recall what happened.

I sent the first draft of this post to my Aunt Helen in Bethany, OK, who cross-checked it with her own memories of the event, and I appreciate her help in filling in some of the gaps in my recollection and adding some details.

My family had a "cousin exchange" program, if you will, between our family in Westminster, CA, and my aunt's family in Bethany, OK. When the kids got into their teens, they would spend a couple of weeks during the summer with the other family. My turn came in 1970 when I went back to Bethany for a three week visit.

As my three weeks were coming to a close, my aunt's family was preparing to leave for a week on the South Texas coast and invited me to come along. My folks somewhat reluctantly agreed to let stay on for another week.

As we were leaving Bethany in the family's giant station wagon, we knew there was a hurricane in the Gulf that might affect Texas. My uncle decided to head south and at the decision point, go either to Corpus Christi or Galveston, depending on the weather forecast. When we got down to around Houston, the forecasters were calling for the storm to hit Galveston, so we headed south to Corpus.

We checked into a motel that was right across Ocean Drive from Corpus Christi Bay. Our rooms were on the south side of the hotel and not directly facing the water. We didn't get in until 10, and my uncle left us at the hotel and went to grab some hamburgers and fries. While he was gone he also stopped and filled up the car with gas, which probably kept us from being stranded in Corpus after the storm. We went to bed looking forward to some time on the sunny Texas coast.

We awoke late in the morning and turned on the TV only to find out that Hurricane Celia, which had been expected to head north and hit Galveston, had not turned at all and was now headed directly to Corpus. It would arrive in the late afternoon. Uh-oh.

The highways were already backed up, and my uncle decided that the best bet was to stick it out rather than get on highway and risk getting caught out in the open. He decided that if we were going to be in a hurricane, we might as well get a good view of it, so he asked the manager if we could change our rooms and move to the side of the motel facing the bay. A couple of rooms were available, so we moved, which turned out to be very fortuitous.

He also asked about the strength of the windows and the manager acted very unconcerned and informed us that we had nothing to worry about. The windows had been tested to 130 mph, and at that point of the day the storm was showing 110 mph winds.

Around mid-day we headed down to the mouth of the river where it empties out into Corpus Christi Bay and watched ships of all size coming into the harbor. The hurricane flags were flying, and the winds were already picking up. After returning to the hotel, we filled the bathtub with water, figuring that water might be in short supply after the storm hit. By 3pm the show was on. What we didn't know until later was that the storm had rapidly intensified in the last few hours, and when it came ashore it was a full blown category 3 storm packing 125 mph sustained winds. The local weather station recorded a 180 mph gust before their wind guage blew away. There were reports of gusts upward of 200 mph and some inland areas around the airport were decimated.

For the first two hours or so of the main part of the storm we had amazing winds and rain blowing from our left to right pretty much parallel to the front of the hotel. A lot of junk was flying through the air and the palm trees in the middle of Ocean Drive were bent over. The roar of the wind never quit, and the only sign of life outside was an occasional police car driving down Ocean Drive, most with their windows blown out.

After two hours the weather suddenly changed. We went from the worst wind and rain I've ever seen to absolute calm and blue skies as the eye came over. There were various seabirds flying around in the eye, and off across the bay we could see the the other eyewall coming. Weather guys call this the "stadium" effect. My cousin and I ran out during the eye passage and crossed over to the seawall to see how high the tide was. I was actually disappointed, because by then the storm surge had subsided and the bay level looked pretty much as it had before.


Pictured below is a photo of the eye of Hurricane Katrina as taken from a Hurricane Hunter aircraft.  I don't remember quite this vivid a stadium effect, but we did have pretty clear skies.



We had about 30 minutes of calm during the eye passage during which we cleaned the debris off the windows, and then the rain and wind started picking up. Once again we went through an amazing weather change as we went from relatively calm conditions to end-of-the-world type conditions in a matter of a couple of minutes. This was the scariest part of the storm.

Because the center of circulation passed a few miles to our north, we had a pretty dramatic wind shift. At first the winds were blowing out to the bay, directly away from our room's windows, but directly toward our front doors. The motel had a pool in the middle and the rooftops were covered with small rocks. At this point in the storm the rocks were being picked up off the roof across the pool from us and being driven into our front door at more than 125 mph. It sounded like the door was going to come in after us, and when things calmed down, we opened the door and saw that it had been completely stripped of paint by the flying rocks. My aunt recalled hearing the creaking of the roof and worrying that the whole thing was going to blow away. We were on the top floor, so things would have gotten pretty exciting if we'd lost the roof.

It was also during this part of the storm that two large air conditioning units were blown off the roof across the pool from us and ended up in the pool. We later saw other units blowing by on their way to the bay.

Over the next few minutes the wind continued to shift until it was blowing in exactly the opposite direction of the first half of the storm. Everything that had blown one direction during the first half now came back the other way during the second half. Great sheets of corrugated metal flew through the air like frisbees, and anyone out in that mess would have been cut to shreds. We also saw thousands of IBM punch cards which had been blown out of downtown office buildings. Thanks to our position relative to the center of circulation, the winds never blew directly at our windows, which probably saved all of us from injury and possibly worse.

After another couple of hours of driving rain and wind, the winds started dropping off, though the rain remained torrential. By this time it was around 7 or 8pm and we were all hungry. My uncle headed down to the motel's restaurant to see if we could drum up some food. He found the restaurant in shambles (the windows had blown out and all the furniture was piled in one corner), and the manager was stone drunk. He was apparently having a little "coping" problem.

At first he wasn't very cooperative, but my uncle convinced him it would be a good idea to open up the fridge and serve the hungry residents of the motel. There weren't a lot of us still there, but we all gathered by flashlights to eat cold cuts, salad, and whatever else we could scrounge from the kitchen. I can remember walking around with my cousin and going room to room with a flashlight to bring people down to the kitchen. It was quite an adventure for a 14 year old.

It was during this dinner that we found out that all the rooms on the south side of the motel (where we had originally been staying) had the windows blown out. Two guys who were staying over there had seen a crack shoot up the window and dived behind the bed for cover. The window came in right after them and smashed against the wall over their heads. That could have been us.

That night the rain continued to pour, and the only lights visible were occasional police cars, and a fire that was burning in an oil storage tank across the bay. You don't know what dark is until you're somewhere with no electricity. The heat and humidity were stifling, and my aunt told me that they were reluctant to open the sliding doors for fear of looters.

We awoke to find tremendous damage all around the motel area. My uncle's station wagon had been parked on the south side of the motel and had lost the rear window and both large rear side windows. If you ran your hand down the front window you could feel deformations in the glass where pieces from the rear window had been driven by the wind against the inside of the front window. The car was full of water and glass and we spent quite awhile bailing it out.  The car had been parked on the side of the motel you see below, and though you can't see it in the photos, all the motel's windows on that side were gone and the curtains were hanging in shreds.

We left later that day and on our way out of town drove by the marina. Most of the boats were submerged with only their masts sticking out of the water, and several had been lifted clear out of the water and deposited across the street on the lawn of the courthouse. Most of the homes had major damage.

The coastal highway was impassible so we ended up driving inland in our well-ventilated station wagon before we could turn toward Galveston which had been untouched by the storm. My seat is in the very back of the wagon, which means I was basically outside since the windows all around me were gone. Later that week I drove all the way back to Bethany in that back seat. I probably wouldn't enjoy that today, but as a kid it wasn't that bad.

That fall I started high school in Westminster and in my English class I had the obligatory "what I did on my vacation" essay. I wrote about the hurricane and some of the things we had seen, and when I got the paper back, my teacher had given me a bad grade and accused me of making the whole thing up. Oh well.

This may sound strange, but one of the memories most of us who were there have of Hurricane Celia was that at the height of the storm, we were all pretty bored. These things go on for hours, and after the initial excitement, there wasn't much to do but sit and watch the town blow by the window. Of course, we're lucky that boredom was all we had to deal with at that point, since many others in town were watching their property blow away.

Another indelible memory of that trip: The Carpenter's singing "Close to You". The song hit number 1 about the time of the trip and I'd swear they played it every third song on the radio all the way to Texas and back.

If you'd like to read more about this particular hurricane, here are a couple of links:
Memorable Gulf Hurricanes
Another survivor story
Hurricane Celia
YouTube video if the aftermath