The Purgery

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Coastal Texas Hurricane Prep in the 19th Century: How did they do it back then?

The past 24 hours have been fraught with anxiety. Family and friends who are sheltering in place to ride out Hurricane Harvey are heavy on my mind while I obsess from afar over social media with storm updates and “safety check-ins.” One thing  reassures me however: my people really know how to do hurricanes.

Storms have pummeled the Texas Gulf Coast forever. As time passes, coastal residents continue to improve their resiliency and ability to mitigate the effects of stormy weather blowing in from the Gulf.

My novel in progress, River of the Arms of God, is primarily set in Brazoria County from about 1829 – 1857. As a part of my book research, the effects from the following historic storms factor into the events of my narrative:

  • September 12-14, 1818: “A storm of extraordinary violence” hit Galveston. Spanish spy and pirate Jean Lafitte allegedly offered his house to shelter the sick during the storm.
  • August 18, 1835: “Antigua-Texas Hurricane” hit near Corpus Christi. While the impacts of the winds and rains on Brazoria County are somewhat uncertain, parts of Galveston flooded.
  • October 2-6, 1837: “Racer’s Storm”  steamrolled a 2,000 mile path of destruction and affected the entire Texas Gulf Coast. Ships in the Gulf were sucked as far as 3 miles inland.
  • November 5, 1839: A hurricane made landfall at Galveston. I am still researching further details about this storm.
  • June 27, 1850: A “severe squall” pummeled Matagorda Bay at Indianola. In 1886, another storm would erase Indianola from the map entirely.
  • June 25 – 26, 1851: A “short, severe storm” passed over Matagorda Bay. Salt water contaminated the water supply, and the winds flattened all corn fields in the area.
  • September 17-19, 1854: A storm touched land at Matagorda/Galveston, and the town of Matagorda was leveled. Brazoria experienced strong winds and rain, and sugar cane and cotton crops were ruined. A yellow fever outbreak followed.

If anyone knows how coastal people in the early to mid 19th century might have prepared to ride out these storms, do please comment! These were the days before Doppler technology, so they would not have had much (or any) time to evacuate. They would have had only a few hours’ notice to implement whatever contingency plans were in place to minimize property damages and keep their families safe.

I wonder what those plans might have looked like? Might they have been so different from  emergency preparedness plans today?

Other questions:

1. What did people do with their livestock? 

2. How did people secure their properties?

3. Did people identify in advance areas of refuge against flooding and/or wind? Did they shelter as a community, or did they hole up in their own houses?

4. How was imminent storm information dispersed? 


Resources:

Fortunately we have come a long way since the 1800’s in our ability to recover from such storms. Antiseptics and advancements in medical technology have improved mortality rates in a cyclone’s aftermath. Architectural and carpentry methods have advanced so that structures along the coast are more resilient to wind and water. Meteorology as a science has also improved.

Below I have linked a report publicized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Weather Prediction Center on the history of hurricanes along the Texas Gulf Coast. Its data reaches as far back as the early 16th century.

Roth, David. Texas Hurricane History. Prepared for the National Weather Service in Camp Springs, MD on January 17, 2010. 

3 Comments

  1. good research Krystal, I’m reading Isaac’s Storm……………

    • Mark, so am I! Sending prayers and positive vibes to everyone hunkered down right now. My family is still there too. They are out of the floodplain and on higher ground, but still surrounded by water nonetheless. Flooding in our neighborhood (and in our house) is 100% imminent at this point.

      • Mark Havlik

        08/28/2017 at 8:48 pm

        thank you for your prayers, they seem to be working for Brazoria county at least. Hope your family is safe, keep me informed. Talked to Richard, he is fine, staying at his house as BISD is closed all week.

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