The Five Worst Tropical Weather Events in Houston History

1915-hurricane.jpg
The hurricane that hit Galveston in 1915 didn't have a name, but it left a mark.
Houston and Galveston, like any cities along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the U.S., are always vulnerable to tropical weather. The scariest of these events is most definitely the hurricane, with its fierce winds and massive storm surge. But, other types of tropical weather can cause significant damage as well. Tropical Storm Claudette dropped a U.S. record 42 inches of rain in 24 hours on the Alvin area, a record that still stands to this day.

Since hurricane season opens June 1 and we are approaching the anniversary of Tropical Storm Allison, it seemed logical to revisit some of the devastation of years past, if for nothing more than as a reminder of what a nasty tropical weather system can do with both wind and water.

5. Hurricane Alicia (1983)
Alicia traveled right up I-45 from Galveston into Houston in late August, 1983. I was a teenager and I remember trees snapping outside my parents' house in north Houston and the tornado that uprooted an oak tree in our front yard. The storm dumped over ten inches of rain on the city and generated wind gusts over 100 mph throughout the area. It caused over $2.6 billion in damage (worth about twice that in today's numbers) from wind and flooding and killed 21 people. It is notable that, during the last 15 years of increased storm activity, we rarely see the first named storm this late in the year.

4. Unnamed Hurricane (1915)
Before 1950, storms weren't given names, but it didn't mean they were any less destructive. The 1915 category four storm that hit Galveston is evidence. This giant hurricane was the first test of Galveston's new seawall and, while it did provide some protection, the 16-foot storm surge still flooded the city. That, along with the 120 mph sustained winds, destroyed the causeway bridge. Fortunately, thanks to the newly built seawall, there was minimal loss of life compared to the disaster 15 years prior. Overall damage, by today's standards, would be in the billions.

3. Hurricane Ike (2008)
Most of us remember this one pretty well. This huge storm ballooned up to category four size before making landfall as a category two. Despite the reduction in wind speed and pressure, an incredible 20-foot storm surge wiped out most of the east end of Galveston Island and completely obliterated entire communities along Bolivar Peninsula. More than 100 people died and there are still 34 missing. Damage totals have been estimated near $30 billion.

2. Tropical Storm Allison (2001)
Weather forecasters have referred to Tropical Storm Allison as a "perfect weather event," but that really depends on your definition of perfect. Allison struck near Galveston as your garden-variety tropical storm, but it wound around in the state, eventually stopping right on top of Houston, dumping 40 inches of rain total in southeast Texas and estimates of 36 inches in the Houston area in 24 hours. This "100-year flood" inundated and destroyed homes that had never flooded previously. Bayous, supposedly designed to handle such events, poured out of their banks and the end result was over $6 billion in damage. Allison was the costliest tropical storm in U.S. history and the only non-hurricane to ever have its name retired.

1. Unnamed Hurricane (1900)
The Galveston hurricane of 1900 may very well be the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States. It most certainly was the deadliest, killing an estimated 8,000 people, though some believe the total was closer to 12,000, most whom were carried away with the storm surge on Galveston Island, leading to the building of the 15-foot seawall. Most of the buildings on the island were destroyed -- the few that survived are now historical icons. The category four storm delivered 120 mph winds and a 15-foot storm surge that nearly destroyed Galveston.

Honorable Mention:

Hurricane Carla (1961)
This devastating storm remains one of the largest and most powerful hurricanes ever to hit the Gulf Coast. Despite widespread damage in the Houston area, the fact that the storm made landfall south of Galveston near Port Lavaca spared us from what could have been a much, much worse fate.

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13 comments
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JCEXTRA
JCEXTRA

something worse is coming in a couple of years, it will be the E named storm and will have catastrophic influence on the whole metro area in a year that will have already been wetter than usual

Albert Nurick
Albert Nurick

Great story.  These storms are no laughing matter, and they're the reason I wouldn't ever consider living down near Clear Lake.  I couldn't imagine going through something like Ike when you're close to the water; it was unpleasant enough up in the Woodlands, and we didn't get 10% of what the southeast side did.

JG
JG

How does Allison rank "worse" than Ike? Allison = $6b damages Ike = $30b and 100 dead, 34 missing...  

Gaspar Ramsey
Gaspar Ramsey

List is pretty good, but Rita and Gilbert caused nearly as much economic damage to the region without actually hitting anywhere near Houston. The art of prediction can stand some improvement, which makes me happy that this Congress wants to save money by cutting out frills and frippery like weather satellites and such.

Gaspar Ramsey
Gaspar Ramsey

Your list could expand to a few more. In the '50's, there was a small storm that pushed a few feet of water up into a suburb of Baytown called Brownwood. A stalled front drowned the aptly named Deepwater subdivision. An unnamed depression set the San Jacinto River on fire and nearly knocked out the I-10 bridge with derelict barges. An unnamed depression put 42 inches of rain on Alvin, Guinness record. The list goes on. Those little "rain events" did in their time nearly as much damage as some of the bigger storms

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

I slept through Hurricane Alicia, Tropical Storm Allison and Hurricane Ike. I seem to have no fear of death when it comes to hurricanes; I blame being an eighth-generation Gulf Coaster.

ostiones
ostiones

You have a mighty cavalier attitude when it comes to tropical storms, and must have been nowhere  near the southeast side of town during Alicia.  Sustained winds of 94 mph at Hobby, the house creaking loudly. As for Allison, it was a rain event with no wind, I just beat it when I got to work at 6 am.  Ike was a night event, but no way am I goint to miss an event like that.  I alternated  between the command post(couch and computer) and south facing south patio where  I could take in the show from the second floor.  Being a food critic, how long were you without power and what did you eat afterward?

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

I have a cavalier attitude towards nearly everything.  ;)

Funny you should ask about Ike, though. I kept a diary of the aftermath - five weeks without power - that was eventually published by the HIWI folks as part of its HIWI: Ike book. The short answer is that I ate at lot of tuna at home. But I wasn't a food critic at the time, either, just a lowly office worker at a large multinational corporation that blessedly had functioning fridges and microwaves for lunch.

howheather
howheather

Absolutely insane! We lost our house to the bayou surge in Allison and my Father barely survived Ike. As a resident of Bolivar for 18 years, he lost numerous friends, one of whom was torn from his arms by the tide while desperately clinging to the rafters of a commercial space for 14 hours. These storms are no joke and are scarier to me than any serial killer.

SinPantalones
SinPantalones

Carla was in 1961. It hit land on September 11, 1961.

ostiones
ostiones

Claudette had been downgraded to a depression when it squatted over Alvin.  I lived in Sharpstown and had never seen the sky so black, we must have had at least 10 inches of rain.  I'd put Ike and Allison as 2a and 2b.  There is some debate over weather people whether Allison was actually a tropical storm, and if it was it was only briefly, but that's not important, what is is how unpredictable storms are.  The scary thing is something worse that IKE  could hit this summer.  I remember Alicia hit in a dry year.  During Alicia I lived near Hobby Airport and we got the eyewall, Hobby had sustained wind of 96 mph.  The southeast side was a wreck.

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