Texas Weather with or without Water

By David Smith

"If you don’t like Texas’ weather, wait twenty minutes”

is a tired aphorism we’ve all heard many times. With a corollary I’ll add, “If you don’t like Texas climate, drive a couple hundred miles, but be sure to stay in Texas.” Our state has awesome variety of weather, starting in the distant South where the Rio Grande oozes into the Gulf of Mexico, with its near tropical heat most years. In the Panhandle you have the usual four seasons, compounded by so-called blue northers, known in other areas as cold fronts, that slam down from the North Pole when they want to.

A friend once said of his little boys, “They have two speeds; slow and stop.” Let me adapt that thought and say that Houston has two temperatures: hot and steamy hot. That may not be quite fair, but it’s not far off either. In past years I referred to Houston’s “annual week of winter” when temperatures hung out in the 50s or 40s, perhaps even freezing a night or two, but last year we didn’t have any winter, not even one night cold enough to build a fire in our fireplace. The AC was on for ten months. About every five years or so, it might snow enough for kids to scrape together a snowball, and schools will let out for an unplanned holiday. Growing numbers of Texans have found their way to ski lifts in Colorado and New Mexico, much of which was formerly parts of Texas.

The real extremes of Texas weather tend to center around rainfall or lack of it from West to East. Extremes range from single-digit average annual moisture in El Paso to over 60 inches average at Orange and the lower Sabine River area. Ranchers in West Texas are always anxious to get as much moisture as they possibly can in any form. Almost no one in far West Texas can imagine the concept of too much rain, such as a flood, until they have one. Ranchers who made it through the drought of the 1950s in banker’s parlance describe annual rainfall as dropping “to the low single digits.” At the annual Bloys Camp Meeting, where our family went some summers as guests of Mr. J.W. Espy, the ranchers’ prayers for rain compared in earnestness with those of the prophet Elijah.

It happens my mother was born in Tucson, Arizona, a place even hotter and drier than El Paso. When our family moved from El Paso to San Antonio, we had three times as much “rain”, and Mother considered it an event when she could drive her old Chrysler with all windows open. Her neighbors must have thought she was plumb crazy. That was before the days of automotive air conditioning.

Though the rest of our nuclear family continue to live happily in San Antonio, with Dad’s move in 1952 to head up National Bank of Commerce there, I had no idea what a paradigm shift I was in for in 1958 when this “prodigal son” chose to “go East young man.” Sometimes Houston gets three times as much rain during a hurricane as El Paso will get in two years. In my collection of Texas books I have one entitled The Time It Never Rained.

Every self-respecting Texas town has a “war story” to tell that’s a one-hundred-year flood plain event. There was a restaurant in Lampasas that I suppose still has the floodline painted high on their plate glass front window with the note, “It came to here.”

Sanderson, Texas surely has its “war story.” Dad’s friend, Johnny Williams, owned a wool warehouse next to Highway 90. By a freak of nature the summer of 1964, a super heavy rain dumped on the rocky hills above town, and the water cascaded down through Mr. Williams’ warehouse like a dose of salts through an old widow.

Sacked wool and mohair rode the crest of the tidal wave through downtown Sanderson, on to the Rio Grande and beyond, most all of it irrecoverable. This was in the days when almost no one thought of flood insurance. Lost in the flood were Mr. William’s records, who owned how much wool, or was it mohair?

No one knew what page of the book they were on, so what next?
Anyone for Kings ex? Force majeure? Bankruptcy?
Not on your life.

Mr. Williams promptly set up office in the cab of his pickup, and met with each of his customers to try to figure out the amount of wool or mohair each had prior to the flood; parties hoping for a satisfactory compromise.

Essentially it came down to Mr. Williams accepting the figures of most customers on his bailment, even without the formality of warehouse receipts. In the Texas tradition of a “man’s word is his bond,” Johnny Williams fully repaid every man without lawsuits and without “government aid.”

In the late ‘50s when I moved to Houston, I didn’t have to wait long to learn about hurricanes. I got to encounter a really big one in 1959, Hurricane Audrey.

That was at a time when I was still wandering in the petrochemical wilderness trying to sell dry ice and chlorine gas to small towns’ water works, even some east of the Sabine River. One morning as I was driving to Lake Charles in my rattle-trap 1946 Ford, the radio program was interrupted to give warning of a hurricane expected to make landfall in a couple of hours near Cameron, La.

“That’s due south of where I am!,” I said to myself. Though it was mid-morning, I decided it would be best to get indoors, so I pulled into the next “tourist court” as we used to call them. What I witnessed that morning from inside the tourist court was the ferocity of Mother Nature, such as I had neither seen before nor since. I experienced Hurricane Audrey in the midst of torrential rain and semi-darkness, coupled with winds clocked at over 100 miles per hour that whipsawed the large steel sign on the tourist court. But it never came off its mooring. Extremely high winds picked up again following the period of near quiet when the eye of the storm passed over us, but what I witnessed from my motel window was child’s play compared with the damage Audrey heaped on Cameron, Louisiana, 20 miles to my south.

After a time, the wind and rain decreased as Audrey made its way straight at us in Westlake, Louisiana! People began to venture outside. Gradually the locals realized communication had been lost with the town of Cameron. Phones were out. There were no cell phones then. There was no power. Why was there no word from Cameron, Louisiana?

It would be another day before the picture began to emerge of Audrey’s damage, surely not a pretty one. Most folks got word of the storm, except that 10 percent who never do. Weather forecasting then was less than a science, so neither the direction nor force of the hurricane could be determined until it was too late.

Hour by hour as day two emerged, news of the death toll climbed steadily, together with horror stories of drownings and encounters face to face with water moccasins. Soon the death toll passed 100. By the third day it passed 200, then 300 and ultimately over 400 confirmed deaths resulted from Hurricane Audrey.

While not in league with the estimated 6,000 – 12,000 deaths that resulted from the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, the deadliest hurricane in US history, Hurricane Audrey of 1960 was big and she was bad. The most terrible aspect of it was that nearly all loss of life might have been prevented had those persons taken weather reports seriously and evacuated early.

Though I failed to be thankful at the time, I was fortunate to have survived Audrey. With named hurricanes, a good rule to remember and implement is this: overreact early.
More important, far more important concerning hurricanes, wherever you are in Texas, forget that you ever heard the tired saying about waiting twenty minutes for a weather change. That’s not the way it works.

Overreact immediately!

Move out, if you can; otherwise, take the highest cover nearby.
(For more stories by David Smith and “Texas Spirit” go to www.totalrecallpress.com or www.amazon.com.)