Remembering 60 years ago, Hurricane Carla

Scene from the aftermath of Hurricane Carla from KPRC's short documentary "CARLA"
Scene from the aftermath of Hurricane Carla from KPRC's short documentary "CARLA"

All tragedies are just that and there is not a competition among them, but certainly the 20-year anniversary of 9/11 overshadows the landfall of Hurricane Carla, which struck Matagorda Bay on Sept. 11, 1961.

Sixty years ago, the way the world saw hurricanes changed forever, as I’ll explain. Carla began like so many storms in the Caribbean before beginning that northwest trek toward the Texas coast. I’ve done some archive research and here is the National Hurricane Center path from those days:

Carla's path from the NHC archives

Over the Gulf, Carla would become a Category 5, 175mph hurricane in the early morning hours of the 11th. Winds dropped to 145-150mph (Cat 4) before striking the coast later that day along with devastating tornadoes. The storm surge produced tides anywhere from 10-17′ while 12-18″ of rain fell. Catastrophic property damage exceeded $2 billion by today’s money and 46 people perished. An excellent recording of the storm can be found here and below is an original report from the National Hurricane Center.

NHC original report on CARLA

Television made the difference

You’ve probably heard how Carla made Dan Rather’s career. I would argue that Dan Rather made Carla’s career, honestly. Dan worked for the Houston Chronicle in the early 50s, then Channel 13 in the late 50s before becoming news director at Channel 11. At the time, the National Weather Service was stationed in Galveston, so Dan took a crew there to report on the approaching storm. That’s him on the right conducting an interview:

Dan Rather conducting an interview

At the time, there were radar scopes and satellite pictures, and there were maps. But maps overlaid on the storm had never been seen before. Dan Rather had the NWS meteorologists place a translucent map over the radar scope which showed where the eye of Carla was relative to the coast! The pencil below is pointing out the eye of the storm:

The pencil is pointing to the eye of Carla

That excellent ingenuity saved thousands of lives as anyone who hadn’t evacuated already got the heck out of dodge. The live television broadcasting was seen around the country. And, yes, within six months Dan Rather was picked up by national CBS, but he literally put Hurricane Carla on a map. We’ve been looking at hurricanes the same way ever since.

Nothing beats humor

We’ve all been through days of anxiety and sleepless nights as hurricanes approach and the meteorologists at the hurricane center live it every season, every storm. In my archive digging, I found this little gem. Teletypes were the ‘texting’ of the day and everyone was communicating frantically and likely asking a few already-answered questions. Below you’ll see one such exchange:

How is water in front of Post Office? WET

You read that right: HOW IS WATER IN FRONT OF POST OFFICE? WET

Never sent, but certainly I can feel the frustration!

If you’d like to see an excellent Texas Archives documentary about Hurricane Carla (27 minutes long) produced by KPRC 2’s Ray Miller, please go right here. There are amazing pictures of the destruction our fellow Texans met head on.

Have a safe weekend.

Frank

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About the Authors:

KPRC 2's chief meteorologist with three decades of experience forecasting Houston's weather.

Amanda Cochran is an Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist. She specializes in Texas features, social media news and local crime.