FRIENDS OF ANAHUAC REFUGE
History of Tropical Systems on the Upper Texas Coast
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.
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.
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
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.