Remembering Celia: The “wild beast stalking its prey."

Matt Briscoe 
Publisher and Managing Editor 
The Southside Light 

While many here in the Coastal Bend are full of memories of the recent historic storm known as Harvey, another group of people are remembering what is considered to be one of the worst hurricanes to hit the Texas Gulf Coast in recorded history. 49 years ago Saturday, the powerful Hurricane Celia made landfall in Port Aransas, bringing with her sustained winds of 130 mph and deadly storm surge. In the end, Celia left behind nearly a billion dollars in damage and as many as 27 people dead. 

According to an official NOAA report, a tropical depression developed about 90 miles west-southwest of Grand Cayman on July 31, 1970. The United States Air Force attempted to send a weather reconnaissance aircraft into the storm that day, but due to remaining political tensions with Cuba, the Air Force could not gather a complete survey of the storm. 

The very next day on August 1, the system would make its way into the warm waters of the eastern Gulf of Mexico where the depression underwent massive changes—ultimately becoming a tropical storm later that day. That storm would become “Celia.” 

On August 2, 1970, Celia had moved far enough away from Cuba to allow for a reconnaissance plane to make viable observation of the storm. What they found was frightening. The data indicated that Celia suddenly strengthened into a Category 3 hurricane with sustained winds of 115 mph. and the fear was that Celia would continue getting worse. 

However, the storm did what they often do and became unpredictable. By evening on August 2, Celia had been downgraded to a Category 2 storm. Officials at the time were perplexed as to exactly why this had happened. The lack of scientific detail was evident at the time. 

The National Hurricane Center in Miami had even decided to downgrade the storm even further. In the early morning hours of August 3, 1970 Celia had been once again downgraded to a Category 1 storm. But still, despite some objections there were those who knew all too well the scientific data that suggested the worst. 

“I think Celia was similar to Harvey in a lot of ways,” said Meteorologist Matt Lanza, Managing Editor of Space City Weather. “Particularly how it rapidly intensified.” 

Dr. Robert H. Simpson, former director of the Hurricane Center knew that it was going to be bad—even catastrophic. In his final report, Dr. Simpson notes that Celia had "aimed at the Corpus Christi area like a wild beast stalking its prey."

Dr. Simpson was a Corpus Christi native and graduated with honors from the Corpus Christi high school in 1929. He knew all too well the impacts of a hurricane. In fact, he had survived the 1919 storm when he was 6 years old. In fact, it was that same storm that cost the life of one of his close relatives. Knowing the risks and dangers, Dr. Simpson was not by far ready to give up on Celia just yet. 

Like hurricanes oftentimes do, Celia underwent a rapid transformation once again while nearing the coast of Texas later on August 3, including a 39 millibar drop in pressure. Hours later, Celia would make a devastating landfall near Port Aransas. But the story doesn't end there. 

Data was unpredictable in 1970 and the tragedy doesn’t begin at landfall. Initial thinking took Celia further up the Texas Coast towards Beaumont/Port Arthur. Residents of Texas coastal towns of High Island, Port Bolivar, and Gilchrist were evacuated to safety further inland. 

“In fact Celia had two cycles of it and came in across a more heavily populated area,” Lanza said looking back on the storm. 

However, as data continued to come in from offshore oil rigs and monitoring stations, a hurricane warning was posted from Palacios to Port Arthur on August 2, during the 11:00 a.m. CST. update. When time came for the 5 p.m. update from the National Hurricane Center the warning was extended southward to Rockport. It did not however include Corpus Christi and Port Aransas. In fact, it was not until 12 hours later at 5:00 in the morning on August 3, 1979 that Corpus Christi was even included in the warning area—leaving many with little time to prepare. 

In all, Celia would leave 27 dead; 15 in Texas, 8 in Florida and at least another 4 in Cuba. The financial toll at the time was astronomical resulting in nearly a billion dollars in damages.

Historical records showed that Corpus Christi suffered the worst impact, with at least 85% of all the structures in the city damaged. Some 90% of downtown buildings were damaged or destroyed by Celia. 

In terms of damage, Meteorologist Matt Lanza says that asbad as Harvey was, had it come further south it could have been so so much worse. But I think Celia (like Alicia a few years later) also proved that a storm doesn’t have to be on the radar for thousands of miles to cause catastrophic damage in Texas.

Sifting through archives at the courthouse, you quickly learn how bad it really was. A report on the storm shows that one-third of houses were severely damaged or flattened in Celia’s wake—resulting in years of recovery. 

In all, Texas state archive records show that 252 small businesses, 331 boats, and 310 farm buildings were either damaged or destroyed across the state of Texas. 

Modern scientific evidence shows that much of the damage caused from Celia came in the form of microbursts that are basically a column of sinking air contained within a storm. Oftentimes, those microbursts are less than 3 miles in diameter. Based off of data and damage records experts believe that this was likely the cause for so much of the localized major damage from Celia. 

The University of Corpus Christi, which is now Texas A&M Corpus Christi on Ward Island, suffered so much damage that it could not afford to rebuild, and it was eventually sold to the State. In May 1971, under Governor Preston Smith and Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes, the Texas Legislature passed a bill to establish a Texas A&I campus in Corpus Christi. Despite their economic hardships after the storm, Corpus Christi area residents chipped in and contributed approximately $1.8 million to support the project. 

But despite all of the damage caused by Hurricane Celia in 1970 there was a silver lining of sorts. She did bring a form of much needed relief to drought stricken areas of the state and as the storm moved westward across the Edwards Plateau and aquifer recharge zone it dropped at least 4 inches of much needed rain, according to official state records in Austin. 

In the end, Celia would leave behind a massive mark on the Corpus Christi area but the resilience of the people lives on today. And looking back, lessons were learned that paid off so many times after and for the inevitable times yet to come. 

“Some of our worst storms are the ones that don’t really organize until they’re in our backyard,” said Lanza. 

Story revised to include comment from Meteorologist Matt Lanza, Managing Editor of Space City Weather.