This week in history: Hurricane Carla slammed onto Texas coast 60 years ago

Hurricane Close-up from Space. Elements of this 3D rendering are furnished by NASA.

By Mike Cox, Texas Tales

“Hurricane Harvey is now a Category 4 storm,” the TV announcer said with all due gravity as the rain and screaming winds began battering Rockport. Just to make sure her viewers understood the significance of her pronouncement, she added, “No one under 56 has ever seen a storm like this in Texas!”

That’s because the last Category 4 hurricane to hit this state was Carla, which struck the Texas coast on Sept. 11, 1961. With 145-mile-an-hour winds and higher gusts, the hurricane obliterated Port O’Connor and Port Lavaca while heavily damaging Galveston and other communities. The storm killed 46 people and caused multiple millions in damage.

Since most people’s permanent memory doesn’t kick in until they’re around 4 years old, you’d actually have to be 60-plus to recall Carla. If you do qualify age-wise, and you were in Texas back then, you remember Carla.

Photograph of a school building surrounded by high flood waters after Hurricane Carla in Port Arthur, Texas. (Photo courtesy of the Portal to Texas History)

One of many Texans who won’t be forgetting the devastating storm is Beverly Waak of Wimberley. As a seventh grader, she rode out the storm with her family in Baytown. For them, however, the hurricane was only one of two crisis situations they faced.

Not only was a giant tropical cyclone churning toward the Galveston-Houston area, Beverly’s father George Murray, who worked at Sheffield Steel on the Houston ship channel, lay in Baytown Hospital following a heart attack.

“The first thing I remember is my mother talking about the hurricane after she heard about it on TV,” Beverly said. “Her sister, who lived in Elkhart, [a small town near Palestine in East Texas] called and wanted us to come up there.”

“Mama said she’d do that if daddy got released from the hospital before the storm hit,” she said. But his doctor said Murray wasn’t stable enough yet.

So, with 9-year-old Dale, 11-year-old Beverly, and 15-year-old Ann, Mrs. Annie Daniels Murray would be facing the storm alone.

“Mama was not going to leave with my daddy in the hospital, so somehow she found out that one of the big churches had been turned into a shelter,” Beverly said. “She took us there so we would be close to the hospital.”

The family lived in a three-bedroom, pier-on-beam frame house on five acres on Baytown’s west side. They had an assortment of animals, a barn and a small apartment behind the house. Across from their place on Decker Street was the Decker Twin Drive-In.

“We packed clothes, blankets and pillows and went to the shelter,” Beverly said. “They had cots set up in a large open room. There were a lot of people, maybe up to a hundred.”

As the storm progressed from light showers to torrential rain, and from blustery to shrieking wind, the mood inside the shelter grew tense because no one knew what to expect. The family played cards to pass the time.

“During the night we heard the roar of the wind and the rain,” Beverly said. “We were kind of in a back corner, away from windows. People were pretty quiet.”

Not only was Mrs. Murray worried about her husband, her brother Rubert Daniels was in the evacuated city of Galveston. A Houston-based PBX (telephone switchboard) repairman for Southwestern Bell, he had driven across the causeway toward the island community and the coming storm while bumper-to-bumper traffic jammed the bridge headed the other direction.

“I know we spent at least one night in the shelter,” Beverly said. “About 11 a.m., it was still very dark outside. And then the eye of the storm passed over and it became a little brighter. Mother needed something out of the car and sent my sister to get it. I went with her, but she made me stand inside the door.”

Despite her big sister’s order, Beverly stepped outside. What she saw was like nothing she’d viewed before.

“I remember just being stunned at the stillness,” she said. “It was like there was electricity in the air. I was awestruck.”

Later that day, after the second half of the hurricane passed, Mrs. Murray took her family home. Their house had some minor roof damage, but was still livable even if they had to put pots and pans on the floor to catch leaking water.

“Mama wouldn’t let us see it, but she told us that a piece of sheet metal had blown off our barn and cut the head off one of our sheep,” Beverly said. The family’s other animals, a couple of horses, a donkey, a Brahma bull, rabbits, chickens and turkeys, all came through OK.

Mrs. Murray later learned that her brother had ridden out Carla in the Galvez Hotel. The 1911 vintage structure swayed so much that water sloshed up from the toilets, he told her. The wind ripped up telephone poles along Seawall Boulevard and spun them end-over-end above the seven-story hotel.

Back in Baytown, Murray got discharged from the hospital soon after the storm.

“Some of our friends, people we went to church with, had their homes flooded or destroyed,” Beverly said. “Daddy probably shouldn’t have, but he and Mama went to help them clean up. I remember they had to get typhoid shots first.”

Their friends lived in the Brownwood subdivision on nearby Crystal Bay. The middle class neighborhood never fully recovered from Carla, and due to coastal subsidence caused by a drastically dropping water table, was abandoned in the 1980s. Today it’s a wildlife area.

“I don’t think it was too long after the hurricane before we went back to school,” Beverly said. “My homeroom teacher, Mrs. Higby, had us write down our experiences. I think my story came out in My Weekly Reader, but I never got a copy.”

Note: This article is a reprint of a Texas Tales column written by Mike Cox that was originally run in 2017.

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