Hurricane Series: Surprise Hurricane of 1943

Most people on the Gulf coast know something about the destructive hurricanes that have hit this area over the years, but there's one major storm almost no one knows anything about. Today, in his introduction to our series on getting ready for hurricane season, Houston Public Radio's Jim Bell visits the Exxon-Mobil Refinery in Baytown, one of the victims of the "surprise" hurricane of 1943.

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1943 Hurricane in GalvestonIt's called the "surprise" hurricane because it hit Houston by surprise. Nobody knew it was coming. The government knew, but there was a war on in 1943 and a number of Houston companies were major suppliers of munitions, war material and fuel. The War Department didn't want the enemy to know a storm was coming, and afterwards that some companies had storm damage, so, all information about the storm's approach, landfall and aftermath was censored. What records there are say only that it was a minor storm that did minor damage, but hurricane preparedness consultant Lew Fincher says that's far from true. It was in fact the worst hurricane to hit this area since 1915.

"At the Humble Oil refinery which, you know we're in front of Exxon right now, over here in Baytown, they recorded winds up as high as 132 miles an hour. Ellington Field, they had recordings there of over 130 miles an hour. And also at the Municipal Airport, which is now over there by Hobby Field, the same wind measurements."

Fincher says at the very least it was a category two storm, but more probably a category three. To understand why the War Department was so concerned about secrecy, Fincher says it's important to know what the Humble Oil refinery in Baytown and some other companies in the area were contributing to the war effort.

"This storm halted the production of high grade aviation fuel for the Allied war effort. The Humble Oil refinery and the Shell Deer Park refinery were the two top producers of high grade aviation fuel for the military. They were also the two biggest producers of one of the main ingredients for TNT for the bombs."

Shipyards in Galveston and Beaumont-Port Arthur were launching Liberty Ships as fast as they could build them, to carry supplies to the war fronts, but many of the ships were sunk by German U-Boats waiting for them in the Gulf of Mexico. Fincher is writing a book about the '43 storm, and he says the fear of an enemy attack on the U.S. mainland was so real that refineries and chemical plants were protected by batteries of anti-aircraft guns.

"Oh there sure were. Some of the people I interviewed told me about, there was uh, one of them lived very close to the refinery, he said right out his bedroom door, was literally an anti-aircraft facility, right there, right outside his window."

1943 HurricaneThe hurricane killed 19 people and left $19 million in damages, in 1943 dollars, but not a word of those deaths or damages made it into news reports. Radio stations couldn't report anything about it because U-boats were listening to them out in the gulf. Fincher says the totality of the news blackout was amazing enough, but the way people in the Houston area accepted it and went along with it was even more amazing.

"And you gotta give it to the people that lived here in the greater Houston and Galveston area, about keeping quiet about it, and not letting that secret out. In times like that people knew, that was their loved ones out there by the millions, by the millions of people. They needed to shut that information down."

Bill Read of the National Weather Service is helping Fincher with his book, and he has access to government archives and sources, and even Read is amazed at how little official information there is about the storm.

"Yeah I was hoping we would find somewhere there would be an archive of the weather records from that time, but again, being World War Two all that stuff was subject to censorship. So I believe what was the policy back then, best I can figure out is they boxed that stuff off, labeled it top secret and shipped it off the Department of War. There's nothing new to be found that I've been able to locate."

Three important things happened more or less as a direct result of the 1943 hurricane. Germany pulled its U-boats out of the Gulf of Mexico in the summer of that year, and it may have been in part because they didn't want to lose any subs to a hurricane. And the War Department never again tried to censor weather information, because it was felt that secrecy may have been to blame for the death toll in the Houston area.

University of Houston Communications Professor Garth Jowett says that's just as well, because there's just no way the government could stop the flow of news and information that way in today's high tech world.

"The world has essentially changed. You can't put that horse back into the barn. And I've said before on occasions, what happens with new technologies is that the means to control them is usually several years, if not sometimes decades behind the emergency of the technology. You just can't hide this kind of information with CNN and with Fox and other satellite networks. The fact that there's a big storm coming down on Galveston is not something that anybody can hide."

The 1943 storm was also historic because it inspired the use of airplanes for hurricane reconnaissance. Lew Fincher says an Army Air Corps flight instructor at Bryan Field near Texas A&M, Colonel Joe Duckworth, flew an AT-6 Trainer into the storm to prove how tough the plane was, for the benefit of some English RAF pilots who were skeptical of the plane's air worthiness.

"What happened was they got back to Bryan Field, the weather officer he comes running out and goes 'hey, why didn't you take me?' And the weather officer got in, it was a two-seater single engine, and they flew back in and took some measurements of the storm, went back into the eye again."

Joe Duckworth proved it could be done, and the following year, in 1944, the first Hurricane Hunter Squadron was created, led by Duckworth, and it's been flying into hurricanes ever since.

Starting Monday, Houston Public Radio begins a weeklong series on hurricanes, and what people and industries in the Houston-Galveston area are doing to be ready if one comes this way. Jim Bell, Houston Public Radio News.

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