What if Hurricane Carla hit today?
By BY GHENI PLATENBURG - GPLATENBURG@VICAD.COM
Sept. 10, 2011 at 4:10 a.m.
With the most intense landfall of any Atlantic hurricane on record, Hurricane Carla infamously slammed Calhoun County, wiping out buildings, flooding roads and leaving a trail of destruction in her wake.
Fifty years later, Calhoun County residents are confident that better preparedness for such a storm would hopefully yield fewer deaths and less, if not comparable, property damage.
On Sept. 11, 1961, Carla, a Category 4 hurricane, killed 46 people, 31 of whom were in Texas, and caused an estimated $2.36 billion in damage, based on 2010 inflation.
With a population of 16,592, according to 1960 U.S. Census data, back then Calhoun County was a mix of rural communities, two refineries and small fishing villages with a small number of bay shrimp and oyster boats.
Despite recoveries from hurricanes in 1942 and 1945, Carla's 140-plus mph winds and 17-foot tides brought the county's growth and prosperity to a violent end.
The passing decades, however, did yield a full recovery for the county.
Today, the area has a slightly increased population of 21,381, is home to more refineries and fishing businesses and is canvassed with numerous residential and commercial properties.
Although the death toll for Carla was relatively low, which can be credited to what was then the largest peacetime evacuation in U.S. history, area officials expect the death toll would be even lower if the storm were to hit today.
"With the notifications we have now, we can get advance warnings out," said LaDonna Thigpen, emergency management coordinator for Calhoun County. "In the 1960s, that technology was not available."
Thigpen listed recorded phone messages and television broadcasts among trusted notification methods used by the county.
"We try to notify people in the lower areas where the storm surge would be coming in," said Thigpen. "It helps people to prepare instead of just reacting to it."
Also, Thigpen said residents are encouraged to maintain disaster supply kits and keep their vehicles full of gas in case of a hurricane, but of course, if the hurricane was serious enough, residents are urged to evacuate to the San Antonio area.
Despite advanced warning systems and pre-storm preparation, Rob Hart, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said some deaths would still be likely.
"We would hope it would be lower, but there are so many unseen variables," said Hart. "There could be an isolated group of people who are injured by a falling tree. Your numbers could double from just that incident."
With 11,138 housing units in the area, many of which are in beach areas, the potential for residential property damage remains high.
Developers such as Lanny Marshall, however, have taken precautions to ensure their property receives minimal damage in a hurricane.
Marshall, owner of Marshall Construction, learned the importance of building sound structures from his father, Lamar Marshall, who was a Calhoun County developer during the time of Hurricane Carla.
"We saw very little damage to the properties my father had built," said Marshall, who was a teenager at the time. "He had always built good quality structures, above and beyond what the codes required back in those days."
Marshall has carried the same building ideals into his own developments.
Building properties in a first tier of the county on the Gulf of Mexico, Marshall ensures his properties are not built below the designated elevation, can withstand the state-mandated 120 mph windstorm requirements, follow the 100-year flood plain map and have hurricane ties, have proper bracing and doors and windows built to withstand hurricane conditions, and most importantly, go above and beyond the current building codes.
"I am confident that homes I have built would withstand a hurricane comparable to Hurricane Carla," said Marshall, who estimates his company has built 300 to 400 residential and commercial structures since Carla.
Joseph Garza, owner of J.R.G. Construction, expressed similar sentiments about his properties.
"I didn't lose any during Hurricane Claudette, not even a roof," said Garza. "As long as we build these houses according to code, these houses can withstand hurricane winds."
The threat of tornadoes spurred from a hurricane, however, is something even Marshall knows no amount of preparation can fully protect residents.
"The biggest worry I have as a builder regarding hurricanes would be the sudden wind gusts such as from tornadoes," said Marshall. "I can follow the guidelines set out by the building codes, but a tornado is a threat for which you can do little to protect a structure from."
The presence of Formosa, Alcoa, Seadrift Coke, Dow and Ineus, all Calhoun County refineries, also introduces a new element of potential hurricane damage that was not present in 1961- a chemical spill.
"That's always a possibility, but we work closely with our industries for preparedness and shutdown procedures," said Thigpen. "It does take them several days to shut down so we want to keep them aware of what's going on with a storm, and they keep us updated."
Overall, officials said hypothesizing about how Calhoun County would hold up against Carla today is just that - a hypothesis.
However, they remain optimistic about the outcome.
"It just depends on the storm," said Thigpen.