Monster hurricane hits Texas coast

BY GEORGE PIPERCORPUS CHRISTI, TEXAS | CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas | August 22, 1999


CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (Aug. 22, 1999) -- Erratic and fast moving at times,

Hurricane Bret continues to play local Texas emergency management officials

like a yo-yo. Many worried the storm, which made landfall at

South Padre Island early Sunday evening, could be more destructive than

1992's Hurricane Andrew.

When dawn broke on Sunday, Nueces County Emergency Management Coordinator

Chris Lawrence winced at the latest forecast, which put Bret on course to

hit at Baffin Bay. The associated storm surges likely would have put Padre

Island and Port Aransas under water along with 20 to 30 percent of Corpus

Christi's buildings. The destruction could have rivaled a 1919 storm that

hit the Corpus Christi area and the Florida Keys 80 years ago to the day on

Sunday and killed more than 600.

By early evening, Bret was heading south of the bay into

sparsely populated Kenedy County, home to about 500 people and part of the

immense King Ranch Farm. That forecast gave Lawrence some relief, although

by no means is the danger past.

"A Category 4 hurricane is something you can't take for granted," he said.

It was a similar story in Aransas County, where officials last night

recommended evacuating the entire county. The area now is on the outermost

edge of Bret's tropical storm force, where the threats now are tornadoes and

beach erosion.

People have been evacuated to shelters in Kenedy County, where the nearest

towns are 20 to 25 miles from the Gulf Coast and separated by acres of

farmland and forest.

"It's heading right straight at us," said Sheriff Rafael M. Cuellar Jr. from

the emergency operations center in Sarita. "We are as prepared as we can be

and let's hope for the best."

A National Weather Service official said Sunday that Bret had the potential

to produce a disaster worse than Hurricane Andrew, which devastated

southeast Florida and southeast Louisiana to the tune of more than $26

billion. Bret's slow movement and high winds, combined with heavy rains,

15-foot storm surges and potential inland tornadoes, worried weather service forecasters.

If the hurricane slows down and drops a predicted 10 to 15-inches of rain, it could create flooding in many of the same areas in southern Texas hit by deadly flooding following tropical storms last year.

Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is sending emergency supplies into the areas affected by the hurricane is prepared to deploy four emergency medical and relief teams once Bret moves inland.

Other disaster response organizations are also preparing to help those affected by the hurricane. Bishop Ray Owen of the Southwest Texas Conference has already requested assistance from the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) which will begin to respond once the needs of the area are known.

Members of the East Texas Disaster Relief Unit of the Texas Baptist Men are preparing to travel to the areas affected to provide food service and debris removal. A disaster relief team of Adventist Disaster Response (Seventh-day Adventist Community Services) is on standby in Keene, Texas, to provide clothing and toiletries to survivors.

The American Red Cross has opened shelters in Hidalgo and Zapata Counties and four shelters are also open in Brownsville.

Bret's development and speed surprised most coastal emergency management

officials, who said they usually have three to four days of preparation once

a storm reaches Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. Not only did Bret move quickly

across the Gulf, but also it took only about 24 hours to accelerate from a

Category 1 storm to a Category 4 monster.

As far as hurricanes go, Texans have had a bit of luck lately. Hurricane

Jerry -- which killed three people in October 1989 -- was the last hurricane

to reach Texas' shores. The last hurricane to have a major impact in the

Corpus Christi area was Hurricane Celia in 1970.

That period of hurricane inactivity can create a false sense of security

among the public, said emergency officials. Lawrence has tried to maintain a high level of awareness with seminars and media announcements. As Bret moved closer, however, he thinks the message began to sink in.

"We had a high level of citizen non-concern initially," said Lawrence,

estimating that more than half of Nueces County residents hadn't previously

experienced a hurricane. "I don't think we got taken seriously until the

winds started picking up."

How Bret compares to past Texas hurricanes remains to be seen. Since 1900,

Texas experienced six Category 4 storms, and only one of those hit the

Southeast Texas coast.

Posted 7 p.m CDT - Aug. 22, 1999


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