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 Texas : Features : Columns : Lone Star Diary :

Terrible memories of Hurricane Carla

by Murray Montgomery
Murray Montgomery

Back when I was still working full time for The Gonzales Inquirer newspaper, I would often spend my weekends going through the archives and researching some of the old papers.

Sometimes I would just decide to pick a year, and then go through every issue from that time period. The last one I researched was 1961. I really don't know why I picked that year maybe because that was when I graduated from high school and most of the memories from that time are good ones.

However, an old Inquirer from September 14, 1961, reminded me of one of the bad memories one I had all but forgotten.

The story was from the Associated Press (AP) wire service and it was titled: "15-Year-Old Boy Describes Loss Of Family In Storm." And what triggered the bad memory for me was; I knew that boy. As I recall, he and my sister were classmates and friends. The young boy's name was Robert Dunn and his life was indeed a tragic story.

When Hurricane Carla crashed ashore on the Texas coast on September 10,1961, I was in the Texas Army National Guard and was going to the Army's armor training school at Ft. Knox, Kentucky. My family lived in Angleton, Texas. Robert Dunn and his family lived south of Angleton, along the banks of Bastrop Bayou.

According to old weather records, Carla had grown so large by September 9, that it enveloped the entire Gulf of Mexico winds near the center were estimated at 150 mph. On that day a mass evacuation was ordered. It was reported that over half a million coastal residents fled the storm. This early evacuation greatly reduced the number of lives that were lost; records show that 46 died in the storm. Eleven of those who perished were from Robert Dunn's family. This number included members of his uncle John Drvar's family.

Robert's father, R.W. (Shorty) Dunn, felt as if he had been through several storms before and he really wasn't too concerned about this one. Local authorities begged him to leave because his home on Bastrop Bayou was in grave danger. He refused to be evacuated. He was asked to let his children come out and again he refused.

When I returned to my National Guard unit in Angleton, several months after the storm, I talked with several of my buddies who were sent out to try to rescue the Dunns.

The guardsmen said they made three attempts to get the Dunn family out. On the third try, they lost a two and a half ton truck in Bastrop Bayou. The driver told me that when they reached a bridge, only one guardrail was sticking out of the water. He had to pick one side or the other, hoping to pick the one with the bridge underneath. His selection was wrong and several soldiers nearly drowned. That was the last attempt to rescue the Dunns.

In the AP story, Robert Dunn said that his father felt that he had been through storms before and Hurricane Carla would be no worse than the others.

The article quoted Robert's description of the event: "He said if it got too bad we would leave," Robert said. "My aunt and uncle lived close to us and when it got pretty bad they came to our house."

"What must have been a tidal wave suddenly covered everything, including the car, and we couldn't leave. Somehow we made it to the attic. All the food we had was a loaf of bread. My share was two slices, but two of the younger children were crying because they were so hungry and I divided my share among them. I didn't feel hungry anyway.

"I think it was early Sunday morning that we got into the attic. We stayed there until the worst part of the storm hit. There was a big wave that came then and we all started to get on the roof. I managed to get up there.

"The wind was blowing really hard then and I tried to reach down and help two of the children up. But something seemed to pull them away from me.

"The last time I saw my parents, mother and dad were holding hands and she was crying."

Robert Dunn was on the roof of his floating home for three days. When the house finally came to rest on land, he walked out. Robert told me that he thought he was miles out in the Gulf of Mexico because he was surrounded by water. He said he even saw a buoy with a red light on top. What he actually saw was the radio antenna above the Brazoria County Courthouse. The courthouse is five-stories tall.

1940 Brazoria County courthouse,  Angleton, Texas, 1950 s postcard
The 1940 Brazoria County courthouse in Angleton, Texas
1950s postcard courtesy rootsweb.com/%7Etxpstcrd/
In 1962, I was working with a survey crew for the Texas Highway Department in Angleton. One job took us to the salt-grass prairie near Bastrop Bayou and where the Dunn family home had been. There were several tall trees in the area, probably 30 to 40 feet in height. Each one of them still had debris from Hurricane Carla hanging from the very tops.

There were beds, refrigerators, stoves, boats, personal items, etc. It was a scary feeling to stand on the ground and realize that the water had actually been that high.

What makes the memory of Robert Dunn even sadder is that the tragedy didn't end with the savage hurricane in 1961. Several years later, this last member of the Dunn family was killed while serving with the military in Vietnam.

Murray Montgomery
Lone Star Diary October 13 , 2008 Column

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