September may be the peak month for hurricanes, but history shows the calendar can play tricks – some surprisingly strong storms have formed in June, says a Texas A&M University at Galveston professor.
William Merrell, holder of the George P. Mitchell ’40 Chair in Marine Sciences with more than 35 years of marine experience, says that gulf-formed hurricanes can strike quickly and they tend to catch people totally off-guard. He notes that over the past 150 years, most of the upper Texas coast has received numerous strikes from gulf-formed hurricanes.
“This is in sharp contrast to Louisiana and the lower coast of Texas where significantly less than one-half of storms making landfall form in the Gulf,” Merrell explains.
“Gulf-formed storms have three nasty characteristics besides forming close to us: they form early in the season, their forward speed often accelerates as they make landfall and, most troublesome of all, they often intensify as they make landfall.”
Gulf-originated storms generally occur earlier in the hurricane season than Atlantic hurricanes, Merrell adds, noting that June is the busiest month on record for Gulf-originated storms making landfall in Texas while Atlantic hurricanes peak in September.
Such storms often catch people off guard, he adds.
Gulf-Formed Storms Catch People Off Guard
“It’s a strange part of human nature, but in June, at the beginning of the season, we are not yet conditioned to hurricane dangers even though we know from past experience the true dangers of hurricane season,” he says.
“Our minds allow us to forget past hurricanes when the weather is clear and no storms are forecast. Even though we know better, we are often unprepared when hurricane season starts. Add to that the fact that with Gulf-formed storms, we don’t have the ‘benefit’ of watching an Atlantic hurricane slowly approach us causing destruction in its path and building concern among weather forecasters. We are caught by surprise, time and time again, when storms form early in the season.”
Merrell says the upper Texas coast has experienced major hurricanes that made landfall within 72 hours after reaching hurricane status in the Gulf of Mexico. The most noteworthy one was Hurricane Humberto that formed in September 2007 with almost no warning and actually achieved hurricane status while over land on the Bolivar Peninsula.
Two other destructive June Gulf-formed storms were Audrey in 1957 and tropical storm Allison in 2001.
Audrey, Allison Were 2 Dangerous Storms
“Hurricane Audrey was a very fast-moving gulf hurricane that made landfall on the coast near the Texas-Louisiana border in June of 1957,” Merrell points out.
“Audrey was a Category 1 or 2 as it initially moved through the Gulf, and then suddenly gained intensity to a Category 4 hurricane about 125 miles off the coast. Six hours later, Audrey made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane, causing catastrophic damages in eastern Texas and western Louisiana. Between 416 and 550 people died, making Audrey the sixth deadliest hurricane in the history of the United States.”
And although not a hurricane, tropical storm Allison formed on June 5, 2001 and pounded the Houston area for several days, resulting in 22 deaths and causing $5 billion in damages as it produced more than 30 inches of rain in several locations.
Merrell says that Gulf-formed hurricanes can also strike later in the hurricane season when most observers are concentrating on tracking Atlantic hurricanes. Three notable Gulf-formed hurricanes that hit in August are the 1932 and 1945 Gulf Hurricanes and Hurricane Alicia that hit in 1983.
The 1932 Gulf hurricane that hit near Galveston formed off the Yucatan about 2 ½ days before it hit, Merrell says, adding that on Aug. 13 around midnight, the ’32 storm reached the status of a Category 1 hurricane about 240 miles off the coast. The storm finally made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane the evening of Aug. 14, killing about 40 people and causing extensive damage to Freeport, Angleton and Galveston.
Another Category 4 Gulf hurricane hit Texas on Aug. 27, 1945. The ‘45 hurricane became a Category 3 major hurricane about 35 miles off the lower Texas coast and posed a threat to adjacent land areas.
“The hurricane subsequently turned, moved along the coast gaining strength, and made landfall near Matagorda Bay as a Category 4 hurricane,” Merrell notes. “No other hurricane of such intensity has paralleled the coast of Texas for so great a distance. Fully two-thirds of the Texas coast and offshore islands were subjected to winds of full hurricane force.”
Gulf-Formed Storms Can Occur Early or Late
Hurricane Alicia was a Category 3 hurricane that made landfall immediately south of Galveston on Aug. 18 in 1983. It seemed relatively harmless as a Category 1 or Category 2 hurricane as it approached the coast. However, just before landfall, Alicia strengthened to a Category 3 hurricane leaving little time for evacuation.
“Alicia was only a small to medium-sized Category 3 hurricane at landfall, but it became the costliest hurricane at the time in Texas history with an estimated total damage of nearly $2.6 billion. It struck a populated area – Houston and Galveston –and there was a lack of preparation to protect the citizens,” Merrell adds.
“At first, only low-lying areas were called to be evacuated. However, after midnight on Aug. 18 when the situation became worse, a widespread evacuation was finally ordered. Twenty-one people lost their lives, 25 were hospitalized, 3,094 were injured and a total of 18,660 families were affected as a result of the hurricane.
“So two messages are very clear: Texans should not take the early part of the hurricane season lightly and, when storms form just outside our back door, pay careful attention because these types of storms can be deadly.”