September 14, 1919
Saturday, September 13, 1919 was a beautiful day in Corpus Christi – sunny and bright with a high of 92 degrees. People ate breakfast, went shopping, fished, and talked with neighbors. Winds were strong out of the north and storm warnings were posted – strange things were happening, but didn’t demand notice. Schools of fish swam near the shore, clearly visible near the surface. Kids diving off Lloyd’s Pier, which had been heavily damaged by the 1916 hurricane, found the water filled with crabs.
“The fish were really biting that day,” local Clyde Prather said. “One lady was down there trying to gig fish with her parasol.” Another boy on North Beach, Theodore Fuller, found that floundering was great for two or three nights running.
Fishermen were having a grand time, catching more fish than they could eat or sell. However, their good spirits should have been tempered by the lead-colored sky with hints of an ominous yellow behind it. A woman who lived down Brewster Street from the Prather house told Clyde’s father, “Mr. Prather, something terrible is about to happen. I can feel it in my bones."
Nature offered more unusual signs: Louise Norton and her husband Bob walked home from a picture show at the Amusu on Mesquite Street. “I remember how funny we felt,” she said. “Everything was still. There was no noise. It was an odd feeling.”
Near Odem, farmers noticed the red ants had retreated to their burrows, blocking the entrances with small pebbles and dirt.
People would later remember dogs and horses being unsettled and unusually tense, that swarms of flies were everywhere, and the hens didn’t lay that Saturday. It seemed strange, said one man, that there should have been so many signs that there was disaster on the way, yet no one seemed to pay much attention to them. That all changed on Sunday, September 14, 1919. It was a day nobody would ever forget.
A tropical storm had formed on September 1 east of the Windward Islands and slowly moved westward, developing to hurricane strength. As it traveled west, it sank 10 ships. The Category 4 hurricane struck Key West, Florida on September 10 and continued west. The steamer Valbanera was sunk between Key West and the Dry Tortugas; all 488 aboard perished. With no ships reporting its location, the storm was “lost.”
Earlier in the week, word from the National Weather Service’s New Orleans office of a severe storm off the Florida coast had drawn little attention around Corpus Christi. Corpus had a reputation as the safest place on the coast, shielded from storm threats by the barrier islands: Mustang and St. Joseph’s. The bluffs overlooking the bays rose nearly 40 feet above the Beach Section (downtown), offering an added buffer in the event of a flood. In August 1916, local residents had ridden out a sizable storm and took comfort in the city’s reputation as being stormproof.
Even as late as Saturday, September 13, people ignored warnings that the Florida hurricane was wandering somewhere in the Gulf and could reach Texas. Regardless of the lack of information, the consensus along the South Texas Coast seemed to be that the storm would more than likely curve north.
Late Saturday night, the winds picked up again, topping 45 mph and driving a steady rain from the east. Around midnight, a weather observer in Aransas Pass telegraphed Corpus Christi to say the rains were coming down hard and the tide was so high his feet were getting wet. Sunday morning dawned and the barometer began to fall.
At 9:30 a.m., Corpus Christi’s meteorologist issued an official statement urging people to leave the low-lying areas of downtown and North Beach, which were about five feet above sea level. A fire truck drove north on Chaparral and, from a bullhorn, residents were advised a hurricane was approaching and safer shelter should be found on higher ground. Some people ignored the alerts, and several families prepared for Sunday dinner, some planning to evacuate after their meal.
The trolley system began running streetcars from the bluff to downtown to North Beach and back. The streetcar motormen were told to go to North Beach to pick up people threatened by the storm. One report said a streetcar packed with people overturned from the force of the winds, killing one man. The water continued to rise, the wind gathered force, and by noon, a foot of water covered Chaparral and Mesquite streets. As the water began to fill downtown streets, two men wearing raincoats were photographed on Peoples St. with water up to their thighs. Another young man had a boat and was playing in the water in front of a group of onlookers as waves began washing over Water Street and into side streets. Then water in the streets quickly rose to a depth of six feet within 20 minutes.
Now people became very concerned, even terrified. Some started to walk for safety, carrying youngsters and aiding women and elderly. The Courthouse was said to have been the safest place in town.
A youngster named Robert Simpson was carried to the Courthouse by his father, who waded through chest-high waves. (Simpson, citing inspiration from this hurricane, pursued a career in meteorology and later served as the first director of the National Hurricane Research Project and as a director of the National Hurricane Center. Additionally, he co-developed and published the Saffir–Simpson scale with Herbert Saffir in 1973.) The Simpson family made the three-block walk along the alley and over a fence through the waters to take refuge at the Nueces County Courthouse. They were housed on the sixth floor, far above the raging waters. Their faces were bleeding from cuts caused by windblown sand.
At the two-story home of J. Brad Pangle in the 1500 block of N. Chaparral, Sarah Pangle was told by the weatherman at 11:00 p.m. on Saturday that the storm would not be serious. On Sunday morning. she did not see the water until it began coming into the house. The family retreated to the second floor, taking papers of value. A sick neighbor was brought over on a cot. Several people departed around 3 p.m., leaving 15 people in the house. Sarah watched the water rushing by, carrying houses, roofs, and furniture of all kinds.
By 1:15 p.m., the streetcars were all stranded. The Pangles had heard the storm would peak around 2:30 in the afternoon, but that was not the case. Water was getting deeper in the house. Around 5:00 p.m. there were three great waves. Water was rushing by like a mighty river, the roar was deafening, and the waves seemed mountain high. Around 2:30 a.m. Monday, the wind shifted to the southwest and water started to recede. By 3:00 a.m. the wind quieted down, and the water went out of the house. They rested until dawn, when the morning light revealed that the pretty town now lay in ruins.
Many of the homes and buildings in the downtown area were built of bricks or shellcrete. People in one-story buildings stood on tables or chairs to stay above the rising water. As the surge topped 12 feet, many went to the attic. In some instances, even that height was not enough. Others abandoned the house to make it to safety as best they could.
Lucy Caldwell, a teacher from Terrell, Texas, vacationing in Corpus Christi, was staying in the Nueces Hotel. She wrote of the storm, “In early daylight (on Sunday) the lobby was a swarm of human beings inquiring about trains and trying to get service cars, but by 9 o’clock the phones in the hotel were dead.”
Caldwell went on to write, “Although warned to keep away from the windows in the hotel, we saw that the wires were all down, telephone poles were all gone, not a bathhouse was in sight, not a fishing pier, the garage near the hotel was gone with 60 cars in the bay, the concrete service station was gone, also the dancing pavilion and bowling alley.
“What a sickening sight Monday morning,” Caldwell wrote. “The water was still 2 feet in the lobby and several feet in the street. The beach from Flower Bluff to North Beach was a solid mass of wreckage, consisting of houses, cars, boats, street cars, railroad track, horses, cows, seagulls – in fact, everything which once occupied the beach.
“By Tuesday morning, the water had receded sufficiently to admit our reaching the Red Cross stations by wading in mud and slime above the ankles; the city was in total darkness. These people (survivors) had no money, food, clothing or shelter. On the floor of the courthouse they lay with nothing under them or over them till the relief trains began to come in.
“It rained the larger part of the first five days following the storm. And the odor cannot be described in words. Slime, mud, dead horses along the beach, decayed fruits and vegetables, burst sewers, wet lumber, molded dry goods and burst oil tanks. The streets were so slippery from the slime and from the oil which floated ashore from Port Aransas (the immense storage oil tanks burst) made the street so slick that you could not hope to go many feet without slipping down.”
North Beach was Corpus Christi’s first suburb, with more than 200 well-built residences on the island. It was connected to downtown by a small wooden bridge on Chaparral over Hall’s Bayou and the SAAP railroad bridge further to the west. In 1919, North Beach was not the tourist haven it would become after the storm.; it was the area where many of Corpus Christi’s upper middle class lived. The substantial homes were primarily made of wood, built on piers and beams. As the water rose, the homes began to float in the rising waters. Eventually, they rammed into other residences or the waves began to tear them apart.
As the depth of the water increased, people on North Beach who procrastinated or ignored warnings were stranded. The only way back to safety was across the Chaparral bridge or the railroad bridge, but both were quickly under water, cutting off escape. The hospitals were at the water’s edge, making them almost impossible to reach against the waves and incoming tides. As homes flooded, people took refuge in larger, more sturdy ones. Soon even those houses were victims to the swirling waters and disintegrated. People were left clinging to pieces of the buildings in which they had taken shelter, surrounded and buffeted by raging waves containing pieces of other buildings.
Theodore Fuller later recalled, “As we waded from the house the water soon became waist deep. A hundred feet or so to the south and toward town, Bennett Street was graded up to cross the railroad. We were to go to the railroad track and walk it on into town. Between us and town was the old dry swale, Hall's Bayou. The water was falling with a deafening roar and was rushing like a huge swollen muddy mountain river beyond that."
Throughout the night, people floated on debris – doors, walls, parts of roofs. When lightning flashed, they could see waves high above them. The earth was churning; the water and sky seemed one; the elements melded into nothing but the storm’s fury. Screams and cries could be heard in the darkness and terrified faces appeared briefly in lightning flashes. Survivors were pummeled by debris as they floated. Some were knocked off their raft, hopefully to find another floating nearby.
Theodore Fuller’s experience was similar to those of many North Beach residents. Of the 200 substantial homes on North Beach, only one survived, along with the Army Hospital and portions of Spohn Sanitarium. All other buildings were swept away, leaving virtually no trace. Overnight, almost all of North Beach had disappeared.
Meanwhile, the storm did little damage on the bluff; most houses didn’t even have missing shingles or broken windows. Some residents, unaware of the horrors in Beach Section and North Beach, only realized what had occurred when they walked to Broadway and gazed on the wreckage below. Streets and lots were filled with cotton bales, boards from buildings, wharves, and debris from houses and stores. Buried in the rubble were bodies of the people who did not make it to safety, along with the belongings and furniture of the wrecked houses. The downtown area was still covered with water as storm water from Nueces Bay drained back into the bay and gulf. Everything was coated with oil.
At the back end of Nueces Bay and at White Point, jutting out of the northern shore of the bay, bodies were left as the waters receded. Some people were miraculously still alive, but just as many were dead. All were covered in oil and had puncture wounds from nails in the wreckage which battered them as they floated across the bay. Men worked night and day searching for survivors … and bodies.
The dead were collected and lined up near the west Portland School for identification. Index cards were completed giving as full a description of the body as possible for future identification and then the bodies were buried in several mass graves. In October, Maxwell P. Dunne had the bodies exhumed and brought to Corpus Christi for proper burial, most in Rose Hill Cemetery. Those who could not be identified are in a mass grave topped with a large rock and plaque near the entrance.
The official death toll in Corpus Christi was 284. All are named except for two people. The bodies not identified or missing and presumed dead were not counted in that total; it is estimated between 500 and 750 people died in the 1919 storm.
Corpus Christi recovered. The Port to replace the Harbor Island port was opened in Corpus Christi on September 14, 1926. After another hurricane filled downtown with water and covered North Beach in 1933, the Seawall was built in 1940 for protection.
This September marks the centennial of this devastating storm. While the memory is a horrendous one, it is also a reminder of the incredible tales that were birthed because of it. The damage has long been repaired, and stories of bravery, life and loss, and a community of people coming together are what remain.*This article was substantially adapted from a narrative written by Murphy Givens for a series of columns in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times and for the book 1919: The Storm. Other sources include: The Faubions, by Sarah Faubion Pangle, When the Century and I Were Young, by Theodore Fuller, "September 21, 1919 letter," by Lucy Caldwell, and Memoris of Bub Simpson, by Robert H. Simpson and Neal M. Dorst.
You can purchase 1919: The Storm by Murphy Givens and Jim Moloney online at nuecespress.com