Log in

Hurricanes at Anahuac NWR

History of Tropical Systems on the Upper Texas Coast

Photo credit: NOAA satellite image of Hurricane Ike taken on September 11, 2008

Being on the Gulf Coast means dealing with hurricanes. These tropical systems have sculpted the Gulf coastline long before humans inhabited the area. However, it wasn't until the turn of the 20th century when hurricanes became mainstream in society and science as a large hurricane destroyed the city of Galveston in September 1900. The city, located on Galveston Island just off the upper Texas coast, was the most populous city in Texas at the time and served as the central commercial shipping hub for the state and much of the gulf coast. Having survived previous storms since its founding in the 1830's, the city's residents had become complacent and believed no storm could ever be worse than the one before. This feeling along with urban development and the removal of sand from the island's beaches used for construction projects proved to be a fatal mistake. The estimated Category 4 storm leveled most structures and claimed as many as 12,000 lives on the island by some estimates. It still stands as the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history and in the top 5 of most costliest. In response to the catastrophic damage from the storm, the 17 foot tall Galveston Seawall was constructed to protect the city from future hurricanes. However, by the time construction was finished, residents and business had already begun settling further north in Houston. Galveston would no longer be the large prosperous city it seemed destined to become.

Credit: Surface weather map of Galveston Hurricane 1900, Wikipedia

These kinds of storms are not isolated as many of them have impacted the Texas coast over the years. Only 15 years later, the 1915 Galveston Hurricane came ashore as an estimated Category 4 storm with 21 foot waves that permanently changed the beach along the new seawall. Port Bolivar across the mouth of the bay was completely destroyed and never rebuilt. Only a small community and the nearly 150 year old Bolivar Lighthouse remain there to this day.

Hurricane Carla in 1961 made landfall in Port O'Connor on September 11 as just below a Category 5 storm. With winds recorded at 170 mph, it remains as the strongest tropical system to hit the U.S. coastline. It brought high winds and a 10 foot storm surge near Galveston and along the upper Texas coast increasing to as much as 15 feet near the center of the storm further south. 

In August 1983, Hurricane Alicia struck Galveston Island bringing with it as much as 12 foot tides to nearby Baytown along the Houston Ship Channel. The Brownwood Subdivision there along the channel was completely flooded and eventually abandoned due to damage. Oil refineries and tankers along the channel suffered significant damage when water in the ship channel rose above its banks. The public beach boundary west of Galveston moved back nearly 150 feet due to waves scouring the coastline. The city of Galveston was spared from another 1900-type catastrophe only because of the Galveston Seawall.

Photo Credit: Harris County Flood Control District, 2001; Downtown Houston flooded after T.S. Allison (LINK)  

Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 is remembered by most not for the wind, but for the rain. Nearly 40 inches of rain fell in parts of southeast Texas over the course of just a few days as it stalled over east Texas. The storm held it's position for nearly 3 days causing significant flooding, including to downtown Houston where numerous bayous and the ship channel flooded downtown itself and most of the residential wards surrounding it.

2005 was a record breaking year for tropical cyclones in the Atlantic Basin as 15 hurricanes formed, 7 of them being considered major hurricanes. Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29 off the Louisiana coast as one of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded. The wind, rain, and storm surge battered the city of New Orleans and the levees that protect it from the Mississippi River. Those levees ultimately failed and flooded the city making the storm the costliest hurricane in U.S. history. Less than a month later, Hurricane Rita, a formidable hurricane in an average year, struck the upper Texas coast near Sabine Pass. The storm's timing only worsened the already degraded coastline from Katrina just weeks earlier. The storm surge inundated miles of coastlines and wetlands as winds knocked down entire forests in west Louisiana and east Texas.

Hurricane Humberto in September 2007 grew from a small tropical cyclone to a tropical depression, tropical storm, and ultimately a small category 1 hurricane in just a matter of a few hours. It made landfall near High Island causing minimal flooding and storm surge compared to what followed almost exactly a year later.

Upper Texas Coast Refuges Get Direct Hit from Hurricane Ike in 2008

Radar loop of Hurricane Ike making landfall from National Weather Service-Houston Sept. 12-Sept 13, 2008

Surge map and High Water Mark Map from Harris County FCD, 2009 (Refuge data from USFWS GIS-click on map for full size)

Most recently, in the early morning hours of Saturday, September 13, 2008, Hurricane Ike struck the upper Texas coast as an unusually large Category 3 hurricane. The hurricane eye crossed over Galveston Bay as the rest of the storm sprawled out over 600 miles impacting almost the entire Texas coastline in addition to parts of Louisiana. The effects of Hurricane Ike were tremendous. Parts of Houston remained without power for nearly a month following the storm due to downed power lines from 80+ mph winds in the city. Waves topped the Galveston Seawall and seawater flooded the north low-lying part of the city as the storm made landfall. This resulted in Galveston being deemed uninhabitable for weeks following the storm.

The most significant flooding from storm surge occurred on the "dirty side" or the east side of the eye as the storm's winds pushed as much as 20 foot storm surges in locations from Bolivar Peninsula all the way to Sabine Pass on the Texas/Louisiana border. The storm surge completely flooded freshwater wetlands, agricultural lands, and residential areas as far as 15 miles inland including the upper Texas coast refuges. Communities on Bolivar Peninsula were nearly swept clean as the surge carried boats, cars, and even houses across Galveston Bay. The well know birding hot spot and town of High Island escaped imminent destruction solely because of its elevated position on top of a geological salt dome situated along the Texas coast.

USGS Oblique Aerial Photo Pre-Hurricane Ike; High Island, TX; September 9, 2008

USGS Oblique Aerial Photo Post Hurricane Ike (Stitched panorama); High Island, TX; September 15, 2008

(See more aerial photos from USGS-St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center)

Anahuac, McFaddin, and Texas Point NWR's situated along the upper Texas coast sustained heavy damage in terms of habitat and infrastructure. Habitat loss was substantial as the storm surge devastated much of the delicate brackish and freshwater marshes located just a short distance inland. Plants and animals that survived the initial storm surge were left with habitat inundated by salt water. Reptiles, waterfowl, migrating songbirds, and other mammals quickly lost sources of food and nesting sites as remaining plants succumbed to the salty soil left from the storm surge. Southward bound migrating birds accustomed to stopping at the refuge before flying to Central and South America were left with little to no sources of food for their long flights across the gulf.

Refuge Entrance sign damaged after Ike
Photo taken November 2008

Original Visitor Information Station
damaged by Ike
Photo taken November 2008

Dead vegetation and dry wetlands caused by salty soils and drought following Ike
Photo taken November 2008

Recovery and Revitalization
The refuges closed during the initial clean-up efforts as debris all the way from Bolivar Peninsula washed onto the refuge and refuge equipment washed away further inland. Nearly all structures and equipment on all three refuges were either heavily damaged, destroyed, or simply lost and never found. Since Hurricane Ike, the refuge has been able to install new water control structures which help move fresh water across the refuge and replant native vegetation in damaged areas. It is clear these efforts have made a impact on the refuge. Vegetation is growing back healthy again and wildlife has returned to its habitat. 

View of moist soil unit south of VIS
before Hurricane Ike - March 2008

View of moist soil unit south of VIS
after Hurricane Ike - November 2008

View of moist soil unit and newly paved road to Shoveler Pond - 2013

In terms of infrastructure and public use areas on the refuge, the most notable additions are the new Visitor Center and the Visitor Information Station. A new USFWS maintenance, storage, and regional training facility was also constructed in Winnie to serve all of the upper Texas coast refuges. These new facilities help educate the public about wildlife, ecology, and assist with land management efforts. They were constructed with hurricane recovery funds set aside by the federal government.

New refuge Visitor Center and Headquarters
Opened May 2011

New refuge Visitor Information Station (William Powell)
Opened March 2014

As much trouble as land-falling tropical systems cause, they also can provide certain benefits to habitat. Drought can be just as devastating to wetlands as hurricane in some aspects. Small or fast moving storms can provide relief with beneficial rainfall to help break a drought. At the time leading up to the storm, east Texas had been experiencing drought conditions so rainfall was welcome. Unfortunately, any beneficial rainfall on the refuge from Ike was quickly overwhelmed by the storm surge that brought salt water from the gulf into wetlands, woodlots, and prairies. Salt water left standing in ponds quickly evaporated following continuing drought conditions after Ike depositing salt in the soils. If there was any benefit to this, it was that all vegetation was affected equally, including invasive species such as water hyacinth and Chinese tallow trees which were reduced in numbers after Ike. The installation of new water pumps has allowed the refuge to decrease salinity by pumping fresh water back on to the refuge in the years since Ike to help the wetlands recover. 

Another improvement stemming from Hurricane Ike is refuge expansion. Portions of the peninsula were already being evaluated by the USFWS for acquisition and preservation before Ike because of the quality habitat on it. At the same time, developers have long been interested in developing commercial and residential properties in the same area. However, after the catastrophic damage on the peninsula from Ike, developers likely began to re-evaluate their plans. The timing and intensity of Ike likely delayed and deterred any further development in the targeted areas. This created an opportunity for the USFWS for land acquisition. By summer 2014, the USFWS, with the help of several non-government organizations, were able to acquire their first piece of property on the peninsula to be set aside for permanent habitat preservation. 

Beyond the refuge, Hurricane Ike's widespread damage has led to the idea of building a protective seawall or gate structure in and around Galveston Bay. It's main objective is to protect the Houston Ship Channel and petrochemical facilities from storm surges similar to those seen with Ike. As of summer 2014, the "Ike Dike" is still in the conceptual phase as environmental and economic impact studies continue. 

The proposed Lone Star National Recreation Area is a similar idea to the "Ike Dike", but focusing more on natural barriers and buffers. The proposal arose following Hurricane Ike as a tool to help preserve undeveloped lands and promote them as tourist destinations. The National Park Service would serve as the coordinating agency but would allow existing private landowners and public land agencies, including the USFWS, to continue to operate as before. The proposal is still in the planning process. FOAR has agreed to be a partner with the proposal. 
Volunteer photo by Mike Moore, 2009; USA Today

The USFWS has served as a leader in the recovery efforts from Hurricane Ike along the upper Texas coast. As tragic as the disaster was, it has opened the eyes to public and elected officials to the value of open lands and natural habitat. FOAR has served an important role in the recovery on the refuge by assisting with those habitat restoration projects, wildlife recovery studies, providing visitor services, and educating the public about the importance of conserving open lands on refuges through community outreach. The Texas Chenier Plain Refuges continue to serve an important role by protecting over 100,000 acres of wildlife habitat. Hurricanes are a natural part of the ecosystem and refuges have endured them in the past. However, predicted climate and sea level changes along with increased human impacts on the environment have made protecting and preserving coastal areas absolutely critical in the future. With the help of strategic land management and further support from the public, our National Wildlife Refuges will continue to recover and grow for the next generation.
Purple Gallinule at Anahuac NWR, Joe Blackburn
Sunset on East Bay at Anahuac NWR

Native lantana on Anahuac NWR

Written by: Matthew Jackson
For more information, try these links:

National Weather Service-Houston: Hurricane Ike Page

Harris County Flood Control District-Hurricane Ike Page 

1900 Galveston Hurricane (Wikipedia)

1915 Galveston Hurricane (Wikipedia) 

Hurricane Carla 1961 (Wikipedia) 

Hurricane Alicia 1983 (Wikipedia) 

Tropical Storm Allison 2001 (Wikipedia) 

Hurricane Rita 2005 (Wikipedia) 

Hurricane Humberto 2007 (Wikipedia) 

Hurricane Ike 2008 (Wikipedia)  

USGS: Hurricane Ike: Observations and Analysis of Coastal Change, 2009 

 "Ike Destroys Wildlife Truck Stop"; USA Today; 2009 Sept 21; Bello, Marisol

 "Naturalist Shocked, heartbroken over refuge damage"; Houston Chronicle; 2009, Oct 10; Clark, Gary

Ike Dike (Wikipedia)  

 Proposed Lone Star Recreation Area (National Parks Conservation Association) 

 "The Longest Train Ride" By: C. F. Eckhardt  

The Friends of Anahuac Refuge was established in 1997 as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization based in Anahuac, TX.

For questions, call the refuge office at 409-267-3337.


Mailing Address:

P.O. Box 1348

Anahuac, TX 77514

Refuge Office Address:

4017 FM 563, Anahuac, TX 77514

Powered by Wild Apricot. Try our all-in-one platform for easy membership management