Carla - 50 Years Ago


Storm passes, El Campo starts clean up efforts
Wednesday, September 14, 2011 1:06 AM CDT
Still a tropical depression, Carla passed through Chicago 50 years ago this morning as El Campo and Texas coastal residents struggled to cope with the damage she left behind.

Most of power had been restored Sept. 13, 1961 – two days after the storm – and El Campoans were returning home.

Schools were still closed Thursday, Sept. 14, 1961. Stores opened the day before. Mail trucks managed to make their rounds by Sept. 12, one day after Carla came through, holding to their motto of being undaunted by rain.

Evelyn Martin’s husband, the owner of Martin Electric company and later a city mayor, helped keep operations going at Nightingale Hospital during the height of the storm. She summed up the general feeling of the town.

“We were blessed because everyone survived in our town,” she wrote to the newspaper. “There was much structural damage to buildings and homes. When we drove home, we saw roofs blown off, many trees uprooted and other damage. It was a scary time.”

El Campo turns out to be fortunate when it comes to electricity, according to J.M Greenwood of Central Power and Light. The city had four power feeder lines coming into it and that helped keep the lights on more here than in many other places, he told the Leader-News in its Sept. 13, 1961 edition.

“Carla unleashes Fury,” the Sept. 12, 1961 edition of El Campo Citizen says in two-inch tall type

“It was a sickening sight to drive down the streets of the business section and through the residential area Tuesday morning. Trees and shrubs were uprooted all over town, broken branches littered lawns. Shallow rooted trees broken off. Mrs. R.B. Wallace on Avenue A lost her 65-year-old oak grown to enormous size. The tree had been transplanted as a full grown tree many years ago,” the story read.

From the paper’s reporting, it didn’t sound like El Campo businesses had a single piece of plate glass window left after Carla came through and bottomed out the barometer.

Most suffered water damage as a result.

“Roofs all over town had shingles blown from them. Some residents had water damage on rugs and wallpaper. The high rain filled the banks of the Tres Palacios and Blue Creek as they passed through the edge of town. Water stood in lakes and filled bar ditches west and south of town late Tuesday,” the Citizen reported.

Having spent three days in the Northside Gym, Irma Rocha’s family finally headed to their farm.

“We did not know what to expect when we got home, but luckily that old farm house survived with the exception of a couple of barns that were destroyed,” she recalled for this story. “The rain water was up to almost my knees and took days to evaporate.”

Now El Campo Memorial Hospital’s administrative secretary, Irma Rocha was 14 years old when Carla came.

Her memory of standing water was one others would repeat.

“I remember driving through a lot of standing water on the road coming back. I have a mental image of shingles drifted up against our chain link fence like a snow drift,” said Bowden Starlin, another child of the storm. “Our house had lost only a few shingles and had no other damage. My most vivid memory was we went to the Port Lavaca area for some reason afterward and there was a ship that was grounded out in a field near the highway. Now that had to be some high water to do that.”

Ann Green, who weathered the storm at her grandmother’s El Campo home on Lundy Street, said “After four days, the rain slowed down enough for use to drive around. We were amazed at the damage we saw – trees, houses, lawns, destroyed. These were things that people spend time and hard work to create just wiped out in four short days.”

She was 12 years old at the time.

“We were sorry for the people who had lost loved ones in the storm and thanked God that we had been spared. We also vowed at that time to never take any storm warning for a scare tactic, but as a serious warning of something that can be very deadly,” Green said.

The storm winds didn’t kill any one in El Campo, but a CPL lineman was electrocuted in Midfield two days later while working on downed power lines.

“An El Campo physician and the resuscitation squad from the ECVFD were summoned,” according to the newspaper account. But Ernest Kigore, 32, was pronounced dead when he arrived at Nightingale Hospital.

Helen Humphrey, who had moved to El Campo with her husband the year before the storm, rode it out in what was then Commercial State Bank.

“El Campo was fortunate. A lot of the wind and rain was dissipating very gradually as it got to Wharton County. Power and phone service was disrupted for a while,” she said. “Of course, national TV showed only the destruction, primarily on the southern side of town and of a bar on (Hwy.) 71 South that was destroyed. Our parents and friends meanwhile thought all of El Campo was in that state.”

Diane Ustynik Hoffman was an El Campo High School junior when Carla came. Her family lived three miles north of El Campo.

“The wind was relentless for two days, blowing the rain over the window sills. We mopped up water for two days with towels, had no power. The migrant workers living on the farm had a camp cook stove and cooked food for us. My Mom and I walked through the pasture to get it and the rain was horizontal instead of vertical. The cotton crop was ruined and tree limbs scattered all about.”

Clean would take time, then City Manager Billy Wolff said in the Sept. 13 edition of the El Campo Leader-News.

“The city has only 12 employees for the massive clean-up job and only four trucks. Cotton trailers will be added to the trucks so that the men can carry bigger loads.”

One of the first jobs was to clear the major highways coming into the city. The one with the most rubble was Hwy. 71 South in the older part of town where there were many trees.

“We’ll do it as fast as we can, but it may be weeks or a month before we get all the rubble removed. We ask the continued patience of our citizens until this is done,” Wolff said.

In El Campo, 12.7 inches of rain fell. Danevang reported 15 inches.

Farmers were just beginning to assess their crops and fields on Sept. 14, 1961.

“Farmers got fields hands and mechanical pickers into the fields Thursday, Friday and Saturday and worked feverishly. Cotton gins in the areas were going around the clock before the storm hit,” the Sept. 13, 1961 edition of the El Campo Leader-News reported.

It would be weeks before damage estimated were available.

But everyone could say the cost in cattle was high.

“The entire area of Carla from Galveston to Corpus Christi along the coast was reported littered with dead cattle. At Palacios, rescue workers said the problem of dead cattle and rabbits and of live rattlesnakes was acute,” the paper reported.

By the end of the first week, El Campo still had three shelters open – the armory, community center and Greer school – a place for some of the 3,200 Palacios residents to stay as they waited for the military and state officials to open the roads to the south.