McALLEN — The end of the world.
This is what a trembling 13-year-old Carlos Vásquez imagined would occur once Hurricane Beulah made landfall, fearing that it was only a matter of time before his house was reduced to rubble or even whisked away by the storm’s violent winds ravaging his Brownsville home.
“I have never experienced anything like this,” Vásquez, now 63, said in recollection of what was once the single-most frightening moment of his life. “It looked like the end of the world for me.”
The young Vásquez was correct in his description of Beulah’s destruction in 1967, leaving a lasting impact that changed agriculture, the local economy, the business community and lives of South Texas residents in its wake.
Beulah made landfall near Brownsville 50 years ago today.
The seed that started it all was a wave near Cameroon as early as late August 1967.
“A month before landfall it was already a wave in Africa that got out into the Atlantic Ocean, struggled a bit,” said
Barry Goldsmith, meteorologist and media coordinator with the National Weather Service in Brownsville.
According to advisers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the system originally emerged over the Atlantic Ocean on Aug. 28, 1967, and interacted with a band of clouds near the equator that form as a result of northern and southern winds coming together — in an area known as the Intertropical Convergence Zone — and moved westward.
On Sept. 7 of that year, the weather service issued its first advisory for Beulah, which at that time was a tropical storm with maximum winds of 50 mph centered near the islands of St. Lucia in the Lesser Antilles.
About 24 to 36 hours before the hurricane hit, the weather bureau notified then-Port Isabel Mayor Leo Sanders that it would definitely hit Port Isabel and the Rio Grande Valley.
“Prior to the hurricane, what we did was use the police car and go into the neighborhoods with the loudspeaker notifying everyone that the hurricane was coming and they had until a certain time to get all the stuff together and get out of town,” Sanders said in a video interview in 2007.
By Sept. 19, Beulah was a severe hurricane moving erratically. It was at 9 a.m. the next day when it was centered near Brownsville, though slightly weakened with highest winds of 150 mph.
In Brownsville, a then 21 year-old Donald Lantz had gotten married just a month earlier when Beulah thrust him into a new level of responsibility.
His father, Ersel Lantz, the disaster chairman for the American Red Cross in Cameron County, sent him to Brownsville High School — now Hanna High School — to open an emergency shelter.
Despite being inexperienced, he was assured someone trained to run a shelter would be there to take over. The only problem was that no such person arrived.
“When the phones went out, we were at the mercy of my persuasive powers, which sometimes were threats when we needed to move people from one room to another,” Lantz said. “Even though this was a new building at the time, it had leaks and other structural issues that made for serious safety issues.”
They made it through with no injuries and eventually someone came to relieve him of his duties. With the eye of the hurricane over land, it drifted north and weakened rapidly. By 5 p.m., the highest winds were at 90 mph.
But as Beulah continued to weaken, heavy rain continued to fall. Upon downgrading to a storm, it stalled near Alice before eventually moving southwest on Sept. 21.
“It got nudged by the atmospheric pattern to the southwest, southwest of Laredo and finally dissipated in the Sierra Madre, where the mountains really took it apart at that point,” Goldsmith said.
“But the moisture that it had entrained within it…it continued to rain itself out over the mountains, over the land, and that’s why you saw those numbers. (They were) particularly high numbers from places like Falfurrias down toward Camargo, Mexico — that’s where it seemed to rain its heaviest amount.”
It was so heavy, in fact, that water had broken through the second floor ceiling of Starr County’s only hospital, according to Dr. Mario Ramirez’s memoirs.
Ramirez had opened the hospital, the county’s first, in 1958 and was also the Starr County Public Health Service Director when Beulah hit. He was still working Sept. 21 to secure refuge for people that needed it, having a convent converted into a shelter.
By day’s end, shelters set up at veteran halls were crowded, and Ramirez had opened his hospital’s waiting room to shelter anyone who did not fit into the church.
When water flowed through the ceiling, patients were moved downstairs while staffers and volunteers rushed to save X-rays and medical files.
Thousands of refugees came from Mexico as well, about 7,000 in Roma and about 16,000 came into Rio Grande City.
Fort Ringgold — where the Rio Grande City school district offices are currently located, and where the old high school once stood — was eventually transformed into a working emergency hospital, where about 2,200 people were treated in less than a week and 16 babies were born, according to the Office of Civil Defense.
The heavy rainfall continued reaching 10 to 20 inches by 5 a.m. on Sept. 22. At 11 a.m., however, Beulah began to break up over the mountains near Monterrey.
On Wednesday, Sept. 27, many refugees had returned home and about 8,000 remained in Rio Grande City. Over the weekend, transitioning into October, things had quieted down, though 16 to 18 inches of mud still filled the streets.
Overall, from Sept. 21-23, 15 to 25 inches of rain fell onto saturated soil and dam releases flooded the communities, according to the National Weather Service.
Perhaps the most devastating was the failure of a weir, allowing water to flow unencumbered down the Arroyo Colorado. The overflow sent water into residential areas with the flooding in Harlingen reaching to the rooftops of homes.
A few weeks later, Lantz — as a student at Pan American College — had gotten a job with an engineering company assessing the hurricane’s damage.
“As we went through the neighborhood, it was sad to see what damage had been done by the flooding to the homes and belongings in the Parkwood area, as well as other parts of Harlingen,” Lantz said.
A major factor that enabled Beulah to affect the Valley the way it did is that the region is actually a delta with clay-like soil that doesn’t absorb water well, according to Goldsmith.
“The Rio Grande delta, it’s flat and it just wants to rise up, and that soil impermeability allows it to rise up along both banks of the river,” Goldsmith said. “So you have geological reasons combined with the amount of rain that fell in a fairly short period of time.”
He said the urbanization at that time also played a role in flooding, as well as the lack of appropriate drainage.
As a result of Beulah, the county constructed the Main Floodwater Channel which takes water from cities in Hidalgo County, funnels it into county outfalls and then sends it through the main floodwater channel before being released into the Laguna Madre.
However, cities are still responsible for their own drainage which Goldsmith said he wasn’t sure had kept up to the growing population.
“We’ve expanded the urban footprint of all the cities here dramatically since 1967, and it’s still expanding rapidly today,” he said. “The question we have to ask is has the drainage system — the man-made drainage system; pipes, canals, other types of infrastructure that moves water when it rises — … been able to keep up?”
As a possible indicator, Goldsmith pointed to Weslaco when it experienced 14 inches of rain in 2015 over six hours, leading to three to five feet of water.
“ I don’t have an answer, but if Weslaco is any example of what could happen if we had another Beulah, then it’s not a good one.”