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Robert Simpson, Former Director National Hurricane Center
Recollections of South Padre Island
A Role in Tropical Meteorology
During my youthful years of residency in Corpus Christi, Padre Island was a favored site for weekend social outings, or a moonlight party amidst the sand dunes. My family used to drive the old Dodge touring car up and down the Northern part Padre Island for picnics and hikes. The Northern part of Padre Island was dunes with sparse dune reeds. Some dunes were fairly high. The reeds extended 20-30 feet high. The view was most spectacular during the full moons and my family tried to plan picnics around the full moon. My recollection is the Southern end was very different than the Northern end. The lower part of Padre Island is more flat beach land and doesn’t have many dunes left.
But little did I foresee the professional fascination it would hold for me decades later which I encountered through my responsibilities at National Hurricane Research Project (NHRP) and National Hurricane Center (NHC), especially the surveys and lessons learned from aerial exploration from a military helicopter, and at least partial understanding of the hurricane-wrought damage during landfall and passage over this beautiful island.
In the few minutes we have here today I’ll try to provide a brief glimpse of how this all came about more than 50 years ago, the roots of which extend back to the mid 1940s where the Weather Bureau’s headquarters, including it’s weekly seminars were located at 24th and M Street NW in Washington DC., a building originally constructed by Spain to house it’s embassy to be known as ‘the castle’--, a name that was retained after the US acquired the property for use by the Weather Bureau Head Quarters, including the research division.
The seminars were conceived and sponsored by Harry Wexler, Director of Weather Bureau research. The seminars were attended by scientists from the Navy and Air force as well as representatives from the Weather Bureau Research Division. The sessions sometimes involved quite lively discussions, especially concerning controversies about the dynamical role of the tropics in the general circulation.
These and other discussions led me to recommend authorization of the so called “piggyback” hurricane flights in which operational hurricane missions would be extended to allow Weather Bureau scientists to acquire research data to address some of the unresolved controversies from Wexler’s weekly seminars. After this recommendation was tentatively approved, I was authorized to participate in a number of piggy-back flights, an action which became more attractive after the publication of results from the comprehensive research flight into typhoon Marge in 1951. Marge was a tropical cyclone of record intensity with a central pressure of 891 mb, the most intense tropical cyclone ever measured by aircraft at that time. With a heightened sense of meteorological urgency, there was a sequence of three destructive hurricane Carol, Edna and Hazel, that seriously damaged east coast states during the mid 1950s. This set the stage for the establishment and congressional support of a National Hurricane Research Project (NHRP) which was opened in 1955. I was privileged to serve as its first Director through 1959. Then, after two brief assignments at Washington Headquarters I was named Director of the newly established National Hurricane Center in Miami in 1967 collocated with NHRP in a new science building on the University of Miami Campus.
Since all operational flights into hurricanes in support of NHC at that time were flown alternately by the Air Force and Navy, a Military officer was assigned to coordinate and dispatch these flights. He was stationed in my office as Chief of Aerial Reconnaissance or (CARCAH). At my request, CARCAH supplied a helicopter to transport an NHC representative, often me, to the scene of hurricane damage to reconnoiter the damage area, descending occasionally to examine the character of damage, and discuss with returning property owners the effectiveness of NHC advisories and any additional information needed.
We felt these surveys and our personal interviews with people most seriously affected by a hurricane, played a significant role in helping NHC address public needs and responses to warnings. It also helped us appreciate the diverse character of hurricane damage, and to respond constructively to advice from expert sources of information, especially those generated during annual meetings of disaster research specialists assembled at Boulder, CO under the skillful leadership of Dr. Gilbert White.
Dr. White was a geologist, and the founder and Director of the University of Colorado's Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center, now called simply the "Natural Hazards Center".. He led a group of competent specialists who made significant contributions to the effectiveness of NHC.
Other in-house lessons associated with the helicopter surveys here and elsewhere included recognition and urgent need for a numerical scale to identify stepwise values of damage potentials from hurricanes. This led to the introduction of what become known as the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, derived from a scale originally conceived by Herbert Saffir to specify the damage potentials as a function of windspeed exposure, a modification to which Saffir agreed, and collaborated with NHC in introducing it.
While the addition of this tool to warning procedures was considered by many to be the most effective means of coping with a threatening hurricane, it didn't take long, however, for hurricanes to demonstrate that the accompanying storm surge can sometimes prove to be as destructive and lethal as hurricane winds. Unfortunately, measuring the independent damage potential from storm surge is more complicated than it’s wind damage, depending substantially on variations of near-shore bathymetry from one beach to the next.
Padre’s more than 100 mile extent of beaches is uniquely exposed to both hurricane force winds and storm surge intrusions from the Gulf of Mexico.
I remember well my unique experience September 21st, 1967 around noon, when our military helicopter got it’s first glimpse of what hurricane Beulah had done during landfall across Padre Island less than 30 hours earlier: As an explorer and meteorologist it was both amazing and challenging. But whatever else, the scene would forever remain memorable—and it has. The helicopter took me the 100 mile stretch of Padre Island from Corpus Christi Bay to Brownsville and back again. When we broke out of the low lying clouds, overlooking Padre Island, we could see many of these cuts. I was able to count as many as 13 storm surge cuts directly across the island, and other evidences of surge scouring and strewn debris across the beaches and obvious breaks in the roads. But during those earlier years of Padre Island there were very few stretches with significant housing development, such as those which dominated the surroundings in Corpus Christi during my near fatal exposure to the hurricane of 1919 as it .as it ravaged the rapidly flooding area of the city fronting on Corpus Christi Bay. In its midst en route to safety, my youngish sturdy Dad with me (a six year old) on his back struggled, was trying to swim us the three blocks to safe shelter in the multi-story courthouse building. We of course made it, but while to me it had been an exciting adventure, to him it was a different story- full of uncertainties and, as I found out later- he was nearing exhaustion as he climbed from the rough debris-covered waters up the courthouse steps. The momentary flashback to the Corpus Christi episode of 1919 led to a brief shutter in considering the increases in lethality from a comparable Beulah crossing Padre Island if it should ever become populated in a similar manner and density to many less attractive beach fronting resort areas But wherever such flashbacks gain recognition we can hope they are appropriately revisited.
Of all the hurricanes encountered during my career, Beulah will always retain a unique corner in my memory bank of career experiences, first because of its extraordinary association with Padre Island, and second for its supporting role, as first to help us demonstrate the unique value of using helicopters in evaluating total hurricane damage potential.
I’m personally very proud, first of the accumulation of new knowledge, and ultimately the mounting of so many stair-steps of understanding the processes which drive tropical cyclones, including their modeling, contributed from so many sources following the Government sponsored programs established at NHRP and NHC,c. stimulating interest and supporting resources to broaden activity in this branch of our science.
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