Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Hurricane Winds Stripped Decal Off Patrol Car Door

N. Ray Maxie


Carla was her name. She was ferocious, deadly and destructive, a Category 5 hurricane at one time, with 175 MPH winds. She slowly came ashore September 11, 1961, at Port O’Conner along the middle Texas Gulf Coast as a Category 4 storm, with a 22-foot storm surge. In some places that surge reached 10 miles inland and wind damage was reported as far north as Dallas. Carla was one of the strongest storms ever to strike the USA and remains the most powerful ever to hit the Texas coast. At one time the storm engulfed the entire Gulf of Mexico. Carla’s devastation killed 46 people, 31 of them in Texas, and did an estimated $2.4 billion in damage.

Towns like Freeport, Clute, Lake Jackson, and Angleton in Brazoria County were caught by the most dangerous, heavy hitting, upper right quadrant of the storm. Galveston was also severely damaged by the storm surge, plus an F4 tornado ripped through its downtown area. A great amount of Carla’s extensive damage was done well away from the landfall site. She spawned one of the largest hurricane-related tornado outbreaks in recorded weather history. Damage was reported as far east as the Mississippi Delta and as the storm weakened, it dropped heavy rain across the Midwest.

For me, it was the beginning of the turbulent 1960’s. I worked for ten days in the Brazosport area of Brazoria and Matagorda Counties. I wasn’t very far east of where the eye of the storm made landfall, and I saw first hand the unthinkable destruction of tidal waves and storm surge. Throughout all my years as a highway patrolman, investigating many fatal car crashes and disasters, fighting crime, vice and immorality, this storm was the most harrowing, long lasting and unpleasant experience I have ever lived through. I recall a few of the many eyewitness encounters I had while working in the area prior to, during, and immediately after Carla’s arrival. This writing brings back many bad memories, perhaps being the reason I have waited so long to write about all the catastrophic events.

In the early 1960’s, my regular job assignment as a Texas highway patrolman was at Crosby in east Harris County. On the afternoon of September 8, 1961, our DPS area supervisor had a surprise for my patrol partner and me. “You guys are part of the Hurricane Carla welcoming committee. Take your state patrol car and report for duty early tomorrow morning at the Brazoria County Courthouse in Angleton. Another supervisor will be there. Report to him. I don’t know how long you will work there, but stay until relieved of duty.” (Hmmm. Sounded as though I was going to miss my son’s first birthday party.) We were told that a great number of DPS patrolmen from the Houston area and across south Texas were being sent to Brazoria and surrounding counties in advance of the approaching storm. A mass, orderly, and supervised evacuation of more than a half million coastal residents was to begin the next day.

Our first and primary assignments were to help evacuate all the area residents, quickly and safely, while directing the heavy flow of traffic northward to higher ground. Gridlock became common along the primary evacuation routes. In addition to managing the tremendous increase of highway traffic came the job of investigating numerous automobile accidents. It always happens during these chaotic times of panic and heavy traffic congestion. Plus, our constant vigil was to detect and apprehend looters trying to slip out unnoticed with an evacuee’s property. Thieves, looking for things to steal, would routinely circulate throughout the many, soon to be vacant and deserted, residential subdivisions, neighborhoods, businesses, and industrial parks.

As we arrived in the Angleton area very early in the morning of the ninth, the mad rush was just beginning. There had been two minor car wrecks along Highway 288 just north of town. My partner and I stopped long enough to investigate the wrecks and clear the roadway to get traffic moving again. We soon observed that most all windows, buildings, and residences throughout town were either boarded up or taped up. Before long, radio contact with the Brazoria County Sheriff’s Office was made. The radio dispatcher told us, “Direct and expedite the flow of traffic on the streets and highways, especially the heaviest traveled intersections. Get all these folks out of town,” and he reminded us, “Y’all be especially on the alert for looter problems that could get bad later on.”

After a long and tiring first day of evacuating the area, it was getting pretty late, close to midnight. We were informed that our sleeping quarters would be in the basement of the Brazoria County Courthouse. Upon arriving there, badly in need of some rest, we found the courthouse basement already filled with storm evacuees: men, women and children. (Whoopee!) We located the accommodation coordinator, and he was able to make adequate room for ten or twelve of us exhausted officers in a far corner of the basement. We were given a padded floor mat and a pillow to sleep on the concrete floor. Not exactly the comforts of home. We had to walk through and over a room full of evacuees, already asleep on the floor. It was there we spent the next nine short nights getting what little rest we were able to get. Since we all were working sixteen to eighteen hour shifts, our rest periods were brief. Practically all officers slept in their uniforms. Most of us became so tired and ragged out, we could have slept almost anywhere. Some of our officers frequently slept their rest periods in our patrol cars. Thank heaven, I was one of the luckier ones getting to use indoor shelter every time.

The American Red Cross was a lifesaver for all the “in shelter” evacuees and us. We officers greatly depended upon the Red Cross, their volunteers and refreshment stations to provide us with sustaining food, coffee and soft drinks at all the shelters. My hat’s off to the American Red Cross, forever! All cafes and retail food establishments had been closed, boarded up and locked down for the evacuation. After the worst of the wind and rain passed, Red Cross also had a great number of roadside aid stations set up all over the area and we depended on them until the end.

Day after day - night after night - many officers patrolled the area and only took shelter very briefly, as the worst part of the storm passed. We helped move homeless people and many others without transportation, to the shelters. And, oh how I vividly remember sitting in my patrol car that third night when the storm actually hit, watching a nearby industrial complex for trespassers and looters. The wind and blowing rain was unbelievably furious and strong. I could feel the gust rocking the car severely. Never in my life, before or since, have I seen such enormous amounts of wind and rain. The force was so strong it was similar to the car being sand blasted. The next day someone said, “Where’s your decal, trooper?” I then noticed the state highway patrol decal had been blown completely off the driver’s side door! Amazing. My experience has always been that you can hardly even scrape or chisel a decal off, let alone the wind blowing it off. Frequently, I have had to drive those cars in excess of 120 MPH and decals never got blown off.

Patrolling through residential neighborhoods, we saw house after house completely blown away. Street after street littered with personal effects, clothing, furniture, pictures, large clocks, memorabilia and anything you could think of, scattered over a wide area. At one point, we came upon a large wooden gun cabinet full of rifles and shotguns, burst open and scattered in the street. We braved the fierce wind and rain, collected the guns, and took them all to the sheriff’s office for storage. As I passed down one street, I noticed this concrete slab foundation completely bare. There were many, many others like it. But this one had only the bathtub remaining and only the bottom row of brick around the perimeter of the slab. In the front yard, on the sidewalk, was a child’s bicycle still standing up on the kickstand, never even having been blown over. Spectacular. Time after time, we observed these unusual and bizarre situations that only occur during the most volatile acts of nature. Things that are humanly impossible to explain.

Rattlesnakes by the thousands had surfaced upon the levees and higher ground to escape the water. The most frequent maladies affecting Hurricane Carla victims were injuries received seeking refuge from floodwaters in trees infested with like-minded snakes. I remember hearing one group of officers tell of shooting hundreds upon hundreds of the snakes. Livestock that had been abandoned through negligence or perhaps not enough time to move them out of the area, were seen hanging, alive and dead, in treetops. The 22-foot tidal surge had floated and washed large animals high enough to lodge them in the trees. The surge had also trapped people in their attics, on their rooftops and frequently, in their cars. Those people had “sheltered in place” and refused or failed, for some reason, to evacuate. I remember helping rescue one poverty-ridden young lady alone with her four kids. She had only recently moved into the area and had no radio or TV. She claimed she was completely unaware that a vicious storm was approaching. She and the kids were trapped on their rooftop. Many hundreds of people were rescued by volunteers or law enforcement officers and emergency rescue crews. Many others weren’t, and their corpses were later located and removed. Early mandatory evacuation measures are credited with greatly reducing the loss of lives.

About the 13th and 14th, large numbers of residents began slowly coming back into the area, eager to see their property damage and make arrangements for cleanup and repair. Many of those later wished they had not returned so soon, since they had nothing left to return to, nowhere to go or stay. With the returning evacuees, traffic congestion posed no problem since they returned at a trickle compared to how they had left. No special traffic supervision was needed for their return. On the 16th, all orders and curfews were lifted. Residents were allowed back in the area over the entire affected coastal region, and a mass cleanup and rebuild was started.

Some of our officers began to be relieved of duty and returned home. My partner and I remained in the storm-riddled area a while longer, patrolling and assisting local officers. They had to secure, identify, and tag all stolen property that had been recovered. It was case evidence and would later be returned to the rightful owners.

On the 18th we were relieved of duty in Brazoria County and allowed to leave the savagely ravaged county behind and return home to Crosby. That made me one very “happy camper.” I was extremely glad to leave that padded mat on the concrete floor.

I showed the car door, without the decal, to my wife upon arrival back home and she was aghast. Everyone seeing it seemed totally amazed at winds being so strong, as to strip a decal off. I later reported it to my supervisor and within a few weeks the decal was replaced.

***

N. Ray Maxie, former Texas Highway Patrolman and Special Texas Ranger, native Texan, now retired, enjoys writing short stories from experiences as a youth in the Ark-La-Tex area, as well as career experiences on Texas highways.

© N. Ray Maxie

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012