With those constraints in mind, one can see why the hurricane
that hit the Houston-Galveston area on July 27, 1943 came without
adequate warning. Newspaper accounts of the storm describe it
as the "worst since 1915". The 1915 hurricane tested the famous
Galveston seawall and killed over 275 people. The July 27, 1943
hurricane killed a reported 19 people, injured hundreds and
caused significant property damage ($17,000,000, COE,1972) through
much of the metropolitan area. A continuing interest in documenting
the hurricane threat to the Houston and surrounding area has
led us to research the impact of hurricanes in our area. Our
focus has been on storms prior to Carla (1961), as that storm
and more recent events tend to be well documented. While each
storm is different and adds to the hurricane history of the
area, the 1943 hurricane has proven to be most noteworthy to
date. It is the only one of consequence that the center tracked
directly across Galveston Bay and into Houston. The lack of
warning and, for 1943, the high population (metropolitan area
over 600,000) under the storm s path should have created considerable
data on the impact.
Perhaps because of the war and censorship of weather information,
etc., we have, as of this writing, been unable to dig up much
"hard official data" on the storm itself. Through newspaper
articles, insurance reports and personal accounts found in several
books on the area, we have been able to piece together what
it was like to go through the storm and how much damage was
caused. An added historical note on this storm...the first documented
intentional flight into a hurricane was accomplished as the
storm moved into Houston from the Bay.
Our intent in this short article is to document as best we
can what the storm was like meteorologically, give a flavor
of the impact of the storm in the Houston and Galveston area,
and perhaps jog some memories of others in the hurricane business
who may have come across additional data on this storm..
Meteorological Aspects of the 1943 Hurricane
The official records (Neumann, et al) of the National Hurricane
Center (NHC) indicate that the 1943 Hurricane formed as a depression
during the day on July 25 southeast of Burrwood Louisiana. The
storm moved slowly due west during the night. (Figure 1). On
the 26th , the storm began moving west northwest and stayed
on that course through landfall in the Galveston Bay area during
the morning through the evening on July 27. The official record
shows maximum sustained winds around 86 mph. The forward motion
was slow, averaging 7 mph. There are no references in the NHC
data as to the basis for location and strength while the storm
was over water. We assume, perhaps incorrectly, forecasters
had some access to ship reports after the war and made estimates
accordingly. Perhaps it was extrapolated backwards from known
intensity at landfall.
There is virtually no reference to the storm in records kept
at the local Houston NWS office or the former Galveston NWS
office. Again, war era regulations did not permit release of
records kept at these offices and we were informed anecdotally
that in all likelihood any records taken would have been classified
and shipped to Washington. Most of what we have on the storm
has been pieced together from newspaper archives from the Houston
Chronicle, Houston Post, Houston Press, Baytown Son, Forward
Times and Texas City Sun, and through various local area personal
histories found in libraries. One other source of information
has been eyewitness accounts of survivors that lived in the
area. Unless otherwise noted, reference to values of wind speed,
tide height, rainfall and pressure have come from the newspaper
The first public awareness of the storm was Monday morning,
July 26, 1943. The papers carried an article headlined "First
Storm Warning of the Season". The article went on to report
the disturbance was located "110 miles west southwest of Burrwood,
LA and moving west at 10 mph, attended by strong winds, probably
gales. The advisory called for 30-40 mph winds on the Louisiana
coast Monday night and in Texas on Tuesday. Small Craft were
advised to stay in port". The Houston Weather Bureau Meteorologist
in Charge at the time, C. E. Norquist, was quoted as saying
when asked about the storm "don t get the people disturbed by
use of the word hurricane. As matters now stand it is a small
tropical disturbance. If it gets worse, we will let everyone
know in plenty of time."
Tuesday morning apparently little had changed as far as knowledge
on the strength of the storm. The Houston area and upper Texas
coast were advised of "a tropical storm of minor size and intensity"
and small craft were advised to remain in port. The first knowledge
of the intensity of the hurricane came after the storm began
making landfall on the Bolivar Peninsula east of Galveston before
noon. Wind damage reports were sent from Galveston during the
afternoon. The afternoon edition of the Houston Press had headlines
that read "Storm Heads for Houston; Galveston Damage Light".
65 to 75-Mile Winds Due Early This Afternoon, opened the warning
that didn't arrive in time for most in the quickly strengthening
hurricanes path. At that time citizens were advised of a "small
but severe tropical storm with winds possibly reaching hurricane
force" that would hit Houston late in the day and overnight.
The advisory came as Galveston, almost completely unprepared,
was hit by 74-mile gusts which ripped through the island city.
The report continued, stating that the storm was centered about
15 miles north of Galveston at 11:30 a.m. and moving west northwest
at about 10 miles per hour.
Various accounts show that the brunt of the storm on the coast
and inland to Texas City and communities in Galveston County
occurred between noon and 4 p.m. The strongest winds were from
the north and northwest...as the eye passed just to the east
over Galveston Bay and across Bolivar point. Reported maximum
winds varied widely with peak gusts of 104 mph measured in Texas
City. The most common reference to sustained wind suggested
70-90 mph. The storm surge reported from the Gulf side was surprisingly
light...only 3 to 6 feet. Most flooding in Galveston was attributed
to rising water from the Bay side rather than the Gulf.
From mid afternoon through early evening, Bay Area communities
from Kemah and Seabrook to the south, through La Porte and Baytown
to the north took a direct hit from the storm as it moved inland
from Galveston Bay. Interestingly, these areas also reported
strongest winds from the northwest, suggesting that the left
rather than right side had the most intense winds. Various accounts
had winds estimated above 70-80 mph with "certainly higher gusts"
Two utility towers over the Ship Channel, rated to withstand
120 mph, were blown down. Again, no tidal flooding was reported,
rather, many accounts spoke of extremely low water in Galveston
Bay after the center passed inland...indicative of strong north
winds pushing the water out.
During the early evening to late night hours the center of
the hurricane passed through the City of Houston. The eye was
reported over downtown Houston at 11:45 p.m. It was during this
period that the anemometer at the Metropolitan Airport registered
a gust to 132 mph and had sustained winds of 85 mph for two
and a half hours. Minimum pressure recorded was 28.78" (975
mb) at Ellington Field (COE 1972) while a minimum of 28.95"
was reported at the airport. Winds at the Weather Bureau office
downtown peaked at 56 mph. By early Wednesday morning, July
28, the storm had weakened to a minimal tropical storm and was
located northwest of Houston near the town of Navasota.
Rainfall from the storm was apparently quite variable. Newspaper
accounts place rainfall in the 5 to 7 inch range at most locations.
La Porte recorded over 17" (COE, 1972) while further east in
the Port Arthur area a report of over 19 inches was recorded.
Some of the personal accounts indicate the heaviest rainfall
began with center passage and lasted into Wednesday. The only
report of widespread serious freshwater flooding was in the
Beaumont/Port Arthur area. Except in the immediate path of the
center of the storm, no significant wind damage was noted. All
the data we have suggests this was a small but fairly intense
hurricane. The lack of any significant wind reports along the
coast of Louisiana and east of Bolivar even though the storm
center was less than 100 miles from land support this. More
evidence of the size of this storm comes from personal stories
of the sun still shining in downtown Houston at noon...at the
time the storm was reaching Bolivar just 60-70 miles away. It
also explains why the storm came without warning. With no ship
reports and no adverse weather over land, there was no way for
forecasters to know how strong conditions were near the eye.
The lack of storm surge east of the eye at landfall is puzzling.
One possibility is that the hurricane intensified just as it
made landfall. Another is that the storm was asymmetrical, with
the stronger winds to the left, or gulf-ward side of the track,
as might be expected from a storm moving parallel and close
to land. The strong and very gusty winds reported out of the
northwest are reminiscent of another more recent Texas hurricane...Celia.
Interestingly, Celia moved east to west along the Texas coast
as a relatively weak storm until just prior to landfall. Another
similar storm for this area was Alicia, which formed off the
Louisiana coast and intensified a short time just prior to landfall.
Both of these hurricanes were also small in size. The newspaper
reports, damage photographs and handful of actual data (975
mb and 132 mph gusts at Ellington, the Humble Oil Refinery,
and the Metropolitan Airport, with 104 mph gusts at Texas City)
suggest to us that the storm was more likely on the order of
a category 2 at landfall (100 mph) rather than the category
1 (86 mph) stated in the official record. Given the storm s
very small size and slow forward motion, and using current expected
reduction of winds as it moved inland, it would be expected
that winds would have been less than 85 mph sustained at either
Ellington or the Municipal Airport by the time the center passed
over these locations if, in fact, the storm had only 86 mph
maximum winds at landfall.
Had this hurricane arrived a little farther west near Galveston's
west end, the destruction would have become even more devastating
than it was. If it had crossed over the island instead of the
Bolivar Peninsula, a large storm surge would have been pushed
into the Bay area causing possibly a large loss of life, due
to the lack of warning. People living along the northern and
western shore of Galveston Bay would have been trapped to face
the pounding waves and rising seas on land as low as five feet
above sea level in many places. Compared with the damage that
was done, who knows how bad the destruction and loss of live
would have been. In October of 1943, the Fire Companies Adjustment
Bureau reported about 65,000 insurance claims from this hurricane.
There total at that time for recorded insured claims totaled
over $11,000,000 for the hurricane of July 27, 1943. What percentage
of losses were there that weren t insured? The Great Depression
was just a few years ago. Most couldn t afford insurance.
The height of the seawall protected the Stewart Beach area
which is located between the Gulf and the seawall. The height
of the seawall was just high enough to block the severe wind
from blowing down those structures. People in well-constructed
cottages and tourist courts on the beach suffered little except
for becoming confined inside. Some 1,000 people marooned in
the Buccaneer Hotel near Galveston s Seawall could see, all
day on Tuesday, a sandy beach of 75 to 100 feet beyond the seawall.
This was caused by the same strong northwest wind that brought
waist-deep floodwaters flowing from Galveston Bay into the northern
areas of the island. Later, drinking water on the island became
scarce as power to well pumps failed. A three story brick building
that had been abandoned due to a fire before the storm collapsed
as the winds built to hurricane strength.
Across from the island of Galveston on the Bolivar Peninsula,
the hurricane came ashore. As it roared across Bolivar, the
U.S. Army s Corp. of Engineer s hopper dredge, "GALVESTON" broke
up on the north jetty, killing 11 of its crew. Nearly all the
homes at Point Bolivar were leveled by the high wind. Under
normal hurricane conditions, the peninsula would have had a
sizable storm surge, but because of the movement of the storm
and it s strange configuration this didn t take place.
At about the same time as the "GALVESTON" was going down off
Galveston s North jetties, the sea-going tug, "TITAN" was taking
on water as it tried to make port, through the building seas
and extreme wind, in Port Arthur, Texas. It had left Galveston,
Texas the day before the storm hit and was caught in the grip
of the storm as it quickly increased in wind and seas. Four
of Titan s crew drowned, three, trying to get into a rubber
raft and another died before the rest of the crew made it to
Many of the homes here, had from 6 inches to 2 feet of water
flooding them as heavy rain fell on the right side of the hurricane.
Heavy damage to home furnishings, electric motors and automobiles
were common throughout the city.
In Texas City, 90 percent of all structures suffered either
water damage or complete destruction and the residents were
discouraged from going to shelters due to a polio epidemic there.
Many of the plant sites producing war materials were damaged
from high winds and water. The Pan American Refinery continued
operations throughout the storm. Lack of weather reports in
time to prepare for the storm was blamed by plant officials.
They considered it too great a risk to try to shut down during
the storm and get the employees to safety. Only minor damage
was reported. The site officials were severe in condemning the
lack of adequate storm warnings.
Pioneers of the La Porte area, men and women who had been through
all of the hurricanes since the Great 1900 Storm agreed that
this blow was as hard as any of the others they had experienced.
The high school s physical education building was reduced from
a three story building to just one floor as the wind blew out
all the windows on the north side and knocked down support beams,
which caused the roof to collapse. At nearby Morgan's Point,
a water tower was blown down. The nearby Houston Yacht Club
was also heavily damaged. Many that lived in La Porte at this
time rated this worse than Hurricane Carla which struck this
area in 1961 as it came ashore almost 100 miles away at Port
O Connor, Texas and later Hurricane Alicia in 1983 which made
landfall near the western end of Galveston Island.
Baytown (Tri-Cities Area)
Today, Baytown city limits contain the older communities of
Pelly and Goose Creek. This was probably the hardest hit area
in the hurricane s path. The huge Humble Oil and Refining Company,
now Exxon, at Baytown recorded wind gusts of 132 mph on one
of their wind anemometers. At the time of the storm, it was
the production leader of the Allied Forces supply of aviation
fuel. At least four large cooling towers were demolished and
other damage caused suspension production. It s toluene production
was also very important to the war effort, being an ingredient
of the high explosive, TNT. Refineries at Texas City, and Deer
Park joined the list of war production being suspended as they
were also badly damaged as the hurricane seemed to build as
it crossed the warm waters of Galveston Bay. Locations along
the west and southern shore of Galveston Bay were flooded as
it s waters were pushed in front of the high winds. All over
Chambers and Jefferson counties, oil derricks went down.
Ellington Field was used as a U.S. Army Air Corp. training
school for air cadets during the war. It was located about 16
miles southeast of Houston, Texas. Many air cadets and soldiers
were injured during the storm at Ellington Field. Hundreds of
air cadets marched out with their trouser legs rolled up to
join the soldiers on the flight ramp in staking down the planes
that hadn t been flown out in the threat of the hurricane. As
the winds started to increase to hurricane force, cadets and
soldiers held onto the wings of the planes to keep them from
going airborne. At times, some of them were working in water
hip deep. Gusts as high as 132 mph were recorded by the wind
anemometer located on top of one of the hangers, just before
it blew away. Not only the wind recorder, but the top of the
hanger it was attached to. At least 22 of the cadets and soldiers
ended up in the base hospital. At lease five planes were lost.
In Deer Park, the Shell Oil Refinery battled against the storm
until the cooling towers started flying apart. The strengthening
winds struck here at shift change, so many couldn t make it
to the plant to relieve those that had been there all day. Most
had to ride the storm out on site instead of being home taking
care of their families. Along with Baytown s Humble Oil Refinery,
they produced aviation fuel needed for the Allied War effort.
Without the cooling towers, production came to an abrupt halt.
Quick thinking by management, had a new cooling tower ordered
as the winds were still raging. One of the supervisors raced
into Houston just ahead of the hurricane to send out the order.
All three of the areas radio stations were knocked off the
air after losing power. Without radio, the greater Houston area
became deaf to any other warnings. Earlier much of the telephone
service and power had already failed. Many people in downtown
were trapped where they were and took shelter in buildings where
they worked. Many took shelter in the City Auditorium and the
Coliseum along with the National Guard Units.
Weather Advisories Confusion
Getting verification from the Weather Bureau on the weather
condition during the storm was very confusing to many. The most
confusing was the difference between the wind velocity reported
downtown and at the airport. Houston's Weather Bureau Chief,
Norquest stated that the airport instrument is an anemograph,
which records on a graph the peak velocities of a gust as well
as the valleys and pulses in the wind. The instantaneous gust
might reach 132 miles per hour for an instant. The cup instrument
is balanced out over a tested period. He said that both instruments
were official, but served two different purposes. Because all
weather information had to be cleared through New Orleans office,
delays in posting weather reports were confusing. Advisories
were 2 - 3 hours late sometimes. Forecasts of the storm asked
by reporters were refused. Later as the hurricane approached
the city of Houston, barometer readings were also cut off by
the weather bureau. The last official advisory which the local
Weather Bureau said would be released on the hurricane was as
"Hurricane of small diameter central 1:30 C. W. T. about
30 miles west northwest of Houston now moving only eight to ten
miles per hour attended by winds of about 70 miles per hour over
very small area near the center.
"Further decrease in wind velocity near center but will probably
reach 45 to 60 miles per hour in squalls in path, reaching area
around Navasota by daybreak. Indications are the disturbance
will continue west northwestward movement during morning with
gradual decrease in wind near the center.
"All coastal warnings expire at 8:30 a.m. C. W. T. Wednesday."
The last advisory was released by the local Weather Bureau
at 6:30 a.m., but it was issued at 3 p.m. Wednesday. The exact
time of the 132 mile per hour gust and the several 100 mile
per gusts were nor available from the Weather Bureau. When asked
by reporters why the times weren't available as well as the
barometer readings the day after the storm the reply was...
"We had the records showing the exact times, but we don't have
those records now. Do you get the distinction?" "We had the
records but disposed of them." On the subject of the barometer
readings, the reporters were told, "It is not a time of stress
today and we are not giving out such readings." He said it was
only during periods of stress that the Weather Bureau is advised
to release barometer readings.
The First Flight Into A Hurricane's Eye
(as recalled by Lt. Colonel (retired) Ralph O Hair)
On the morning of July 27th, 1943, British pilots were being
trained in the new field of "Instrument" flying at Bryan Field
by the lead instructor, Colonel Joe Duckworth. This morning,
word was being spread that a hurricane was coming ashore near
Galveston and that the planes at the field may have to be flown
out for safety. Many of the British pilots were already "Aces"
from earlier battles over Europe and felt that they deserved
to be trained in the top fighters that the United States had
to offer, not this AT-6 "Texan" Trainer. When they heard that
the planes may have to be flown away from the storm, they really
started gigging the instructors about the frailty of their trainer.
The problem was that few, if any European had ever experienced
a true hurricane. They thought it was just another big thunderstorm.
Finally Colonel Duckworth had enough of the ribbing and whining
of these pilots and bet them that he could fly the "Texan" into
the storm and back, showing that both the plane and his instrument
flying technique was sound. Well the bet was on. A highball
to the winner! Colonel Duckworth then looked across the breakfast
table at Lieutenant Ralph O'Hair, the only navigator at the
field that morning and asked him to fly with him. O'Hair was
taken back by the bet but agreed to fly with him, due to the
respect he had for Duckworth s skill as a pilot. Since they
felt that Headquarters wouldn t approve the flight due to the
risk of the aircraft and the crew, they decided to do it without
official permission. The main problem that passed through Lt.
O'Hair s mind was that if their single engine quit for some
reason like being flooded out from the heavy rain, they would
be in deep trouble. As they closed on the hurricane which was
now ashore, he thought about what it would be like if he had
to use the parachute. As they approached the storm at a height
of between four thousand to nine thousand feet the air became
very turbulent. He described the flight now as like, "being
tossed about like a stick in a dog s mouth." The rain was very
heavy as the flew through the darkness, fighting the updrafts
Suddenly they broke into the eye of the storm. This was not
the purpose of the flight, but really an accident. The sky was
filled with bright clouds and it seemed that they were surrounded
by a shower curtain of darker clouds. A they looked down they
could see the country side. The storm had indeed moved inland.
O'Hair described the shape of the center as like a leaning cone.
The lower section dragging a bit behind due to the friction
from contact with the land. The eye seemed to be about nine
or 10 miles across and they circled inside. As they exited the
eye, the dark overcast and heavy rain again pounded them until
they made their way out of the storm and back towards Bryan
Field. As they arrived back at the field, the weather officer,
Lieutenant William Jones-Burdick asked to be flow into the storm,
so O'Hair jumped out and the weather officer flew off into the
hurricane with Duckworth. After that flight, Bryan Field became
a Mecca for Allied pilots wanting to learn the fine art of "Instrument
Flying". That night the bet was paid and no more comments were
given on the sturdiest of the AT-6 "Texan" trainer. That was
also the last flight into a hurricane for Lt. O'Hair.
Censorship Of Weather Information
The news of this hurricane was heavily censored by the government
due to national security. The loss of production of war materials
couldn t be found out by the Axis Powers. This was 1943 and
the tides in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of war were
finally starting to turn. There was a report that the FBI shutdown
the telegraph office in La Porte because someone had sent a
telegram out of the state informing someone of the damages from
the hurricane. The only news of the hurricane was published
in the two states that were affected, Texas and Louisiana. After
this hurricane, never again were advisories censored from the
public. War or no war, the risk to human life is too great.
This was a lesson learned.
Author's Note of Thanks
I have been researching this hurricane for many years and have
been surprised how little official information I have been able
to find. My Dad's family moved to the area in the 1930's. While
growing up, I was told stories of this storm by family members.
Later as my job assignment with Dupont as the hurricane preparedness
information resource for our coastal sites, I tried to learn
more about this hurricane. I would seek information from different
sources but usually came away with little or nothing. I fear
that in the near future, less will become know about this strange
storm with most of the survivors passing on.
I want to thank the many "Old Timers" who sat down and gave
me information that couldn t be found elsewhere. Discussing
that first flight into the eye of a hurricane with retired Lt.
Co. Ralph O'Hair, was a real thrill. Special thanks to my Dad's
brothers and sisters who passed their stories of the storm to
me. Fellow Duponter and La Porte historian, Jim Counts filled
many gaps on the storm that made me realize that this hurricane
was worth researching. When I showed, fellow author of this
paper, Bill Read, the MIC of the NWS Houston/Galveston Field
Office, what information I had been able to gather, he became
excited and became a great help in opening many official doors.
We would like to ask anyone with information on this hurricane
to please contact us. We are looking for photographs, newspaper
clippings, eye-witness accounts, and official records including
graphs. Please note that this paper is just a small collection
of information that we have uncovered.
- THE HOUSTON CHRONICLE - July 26 - 30, 1943
- THE HOUSTON PRESS - July 26 - 30, 1943
- THE HOUSTON POST - July 26 - 30, 1943
- THE DAILY SUN (Baytown Texas) -July 26 -30, 1943
- THE TEXAS CITY SUN - July 26 - 30, 1943
- A Report on the Hurricane Damage of July 27, 1943 In Houston,
- Beaumont Area in Texas - Fire Companies Adjustment Bureau,
INC. , 1943
- THE HURRICANE ALMANAC - 1988 TEXAS EDITION - Ellis, Mike
- THE HURRICANE HUNTERS - Tannehill, Ivan Ray - 1955
- BAYTOWN VIGNETTES - One Hundred and Fifty Years in the History
- Texas Gulf Coast Community - Britt, John and Tyssen, Muriel
- SHELL AT DEER PARK - The First Fifty Years - Wells, Barbara
- INTERVIEW - Jim Counts, La Porte, TX
- INTERVIEW - Lt. Col. Ralph O'Hair
- INTERVIEW - Members of the Fincher Family
- INTERVIEW - Bert Schroeder
- PHOTOGRAPHS - Mrs. Schoeder
- THE NOAA LIBRARY - Miami, FL.
- THE NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER LIBRARY - Miami, FL
- THE ROSENBURG LIBRARY - Galveston, TX
- THE TEXAS ROOM OF THE CITY OF HOUSTON LIBRARY - Houston,
- THE STERLING LIBRARY - Baytown, TX
- THE LA PORTE LIBRARY - La Porte, TX
- SCHRODER'S BOOK HAVEN (Rare Texana book dealer) - League
- HURRTRAK EM/PRO - P. C. Weather Products