tell anybody, but there’s a hurricane in the Gulf
“East Texas, including
thundershowers near the upper coast.”
--The official weather forecast
one day before a Category 2 hurricane slammed into the island city, killing 20
people and causing millions of dollars in property damage
* * *
the night of July 26, 1943 the big coastal artillery pieces jutting from the huge
concrete bunkers at Fort Crockett faced the Gulf of Mexico ready at a moment’s
notice to hurl giant armor-piercing shells at any enemy vessel that might try
to approach Galveston
from the sea.
Not since the Civil War had the island city had cause to
fear hostile war ships. But German U-boats had torpedoed American ships within
sight of the Texas coast and
for all anyone knew, despite the best efforts of the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard
Nazi submarines might still be lurking out there in the darkness ready to turn
an oil tanker into a ball of fire.
For that reason, ships leaving Galveston
after the sun went down stood to sea in blackness, their running lights extinguished
so as not to present a target. Nor did they communicate by radio or wireless telegraphy.
Radio signals could be triangulated to reveal a ship’s position. Weather reports
from mariners could aid the enemy.
Of course, wartime censorship kept
most citizens blissfully ignorant of how much success Germany had enjoyed in scuttling
American vessels in the Gulf and along the Atlantic seaboard. The same need-to-know
mentality on the part of the government kept detailed weather forecasts out of
newspapers and off commercial radio stations. In effect, the weather had become
a military secret.
Even without wartime censorship, when it came to weather
forecasting, the state of the art wasn’t particularly artful. Weather satettiles
weren’t even the stuff of science fiction yet. Radar was a decade from any practical
application in meterology. The Weather Channel did not exist. Mr. and Mrs. Average
American essentially had to rely on nondescript “forecasts” or resort to old sailor’s
ditties like “Red sky at morning, sailor take warning.”
On July 27, the
weather bureau did admit that a tropical storm “of minor size and intensity” had
developed in the Gulf, but never used the “H” word and said nothing about the
weather system that seemed particularly alarming. Just some squally weather coming,
most people thought.
In fairness, given the lack of tools available to them, the government forecasters
may have been taken by surprise at the intensity of the storm, which began battering
that summer morning. Making landfall on Bolivar
Point, the hurricane moved across the bay and onto the mainland at Kemah.
government aerometer at Galveston
blew away at 1:30 p.m., but winds estimated at 85 to 100 miles an hour buffeted
the island city. When the hurricane moved over Houston,
which then had a population of 600,000, the peak gust at the airport was clocked
at 132 miles an hour. Hurricanes weren’t categorized back then, but meteorolgoists
who have studied the storm today believe the cyclone reached Category 2 force.
constructed after the deadly 1900 hurricane
did its job and protected Galveston
from catastrophic damage, but the storm brought flooding and left widespread moderate
to severe damage over the metropolitan area. Ten crewmen aboard the Galveston,
a U.S. Army Corps of Engineer dredge, drowned when the vessel was blown against
the north jetty. Other deaths in the area brought the total number of fatalities
Two critical oil refineries sustained major damage, news government
censors did not want the Axis powers to find out about. In fact, national newspapers
remained mostly silent on the hurricane and the death and destruction it caused.
At some point, the weather bureau realized that it had gone overboard in delaying
an announcement of the hurricane’s approach and minimizing its significance. According
to a reserch paper written by a contemporary Weather Service staffer, the 1943
storm ended at least domestic meteorlogical censorship.
They didn’t name
hurricanes back then, but today the storm of July 27, 1943 is known as the Secret
© Mike Cox
July 8, 2010 column