Hometown News For Orange County, Texas

'Surprise' hurricane hit 80 years ago during war

On July 26, 1943, the rains began to hit Orange. They continued into the next day with strong winds. What is now known as the "Surprise Hurricane" came ashore at Bolivar Peninsula eighty years ago on July 27.

The Golden Triangle area recorded 19 inches of rain with one drowning death in Port Arthur. Four men on a sea-going tug drowned outside of Port Arthur, while another 10 on the tug were saved.

Also, the storm has become famous as the first time a military plane flew into the eye of a hurricane, thanks to some betting pilots at Bryan Field and an unauthorized flight. That was the inspiration for the now famous "hurricane hunter" flights.

The National Weather Service did not name hurricanes until 1953, but the name stuck to the 1943 storm that hit the upper Texas Gulf Coast came because no one was warned. Blame it on World War II.

The National Weather Service developed in the 1800s through the military reporting by telegraph weather from outposts. The National Weather Service became a civilian government office in 1890, with one of the first weather stations opening in Galveston.

For many years, the hurricane forecasts depended on messages received from ships at sea or outposts in Caribbean Sea countries and territories. Radar was not used until the 1950s and satellite images for predicting weather came in the 1960s.

According to the National Weather Service history of the storm, information in 1943 was limited because of German U boats in the Gulf of Mexico. All ships were ordered to radio silence was limited because a radio signal could be picked up by German submarines.

In addition, the federal government was reluctant to let the enemies of the Axis of Germany, Italy, and Japan, know that the oil refineries and wells on the coast could be damaged. Plus, Orange, Beaumont had major shipbuilding yards producing Navy vessels. This region was vital to win the war. No need to let the enemy know the fuel and ship supply could be put out of production.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) now oversees the National Weather Service.

The online NOAA history of the storm was compiled by a meteorologist and hurricane historian based on old newspaper stories and other reports at the time. They speculate that the weather service's record of the storm were sent to Washington, D.C., as classified material and have not been found.

According to that history, the storm started as a depression on July 25 southeast of Burrwood, Louisiana, and traveled westward in the Gulf. Newspapers on Monday, July 26, 1943, reported on a storm with winds of 30 to 40 miles per hours and advised small craft to stay in port. When a Houston Weather Bureau meteorologist was asked for more details, he said "don't get the people disturbed by the use of the word 'hurricane.'"

The storm came ashore the morning of July 27. The official record lists the maximum sustained winds as 86 mph, which would put it in the Category 1 storm designation. But the two researchers who wrote the history think the storm was a Category 2 because of unofficial information acquired. Texas City recorded a peak wind of 104 mph. Elllington Field in Houston recorded a gust of 132 mph had a number of planes blown over. Around the Houston Ship Channel, buildings designed to withstand 120 mph winds were blown over.

The historians tracked the storm across Galveston Bay to Texas City, Kemah, Seabrook, LaPorte. By night, it was in Houston with the eye passing by a little before midnight. Some 90 percent of the buildings in Texas City were damaged or flooded.

The history does not include what happened in Orange, but surrounding towns in Texas and Louisiana recorded several inches of rain falling, with the 19 inches in the Golden Triangle area.

But the surprise of the storm doesn't end with the lack of public weather forecasts. No one at the time would have thought of flying a plane into a hurricane. It took some bragging and betting for that.

British pilots were at Bryan Field near College Station to train on instrument equipment, which was new to aviation at the time. As word of the storm came to the base on July 27, the British pilots bet their American instructor that he could fly into a hurricane.

Lt. Ralph O'Hair, a U.S. navigator, later told the historians that the British thought a hurricane was a strong thunderstorm. Col. Joe Duckworth, the pilot and instructor, got O'Hair to fly as his navigator. They took off without official permission and successfully flew into the hurricane and back.

The two became the first in history to see the dark eye wall of a hurricane and the clear inside of the eye. After they returned to Bryan Field, the meteorologist there wanted to see for himself. Col. Duckworth then flew back to storm so the meteorologist could see.

The unauthorized flight led to the formation of the famous "Hurricane Hunter" flights that began taking scientific weather instruments up to study the storms. Their success through the years has led more accurate storm predictions and evacuation notices.

And the Surprise Hurricane of 1943 set another mark in history. It's the last time the government censored storm warnings.


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