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Thursday, September 22, 2005. 
Visiting a Ghost Town, Galveston and the Seawall at Night
Pictures on this site are copyright George Flickinger. I have taken all pics unless otherwise noted, please email me for picture usage info.
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Meteorologist George Flickinger's Storm Chasing Pictures and Southern Plains Forecasts
Flickinger Weather
Flickinger Weather
Meteorologist George Flickinger's Storm Chasing Pictures and Southern Plains Forecasts
Flickinger Weather
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My father and I in 1980. I later realized that Dad really didn't know much about baseball, but he provided guidance and coached the team anyway. He was my hero and was to be my "best man" in my wedding, but he died before Shyla and I were married.
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Despite growing up along the Texas Gulf Coast, I never experienced hurricane conditions. My family had near misses and vacation interruptions, but far Southeast Texas always seemed to miss the big ones.

I somewhat remember Tropical Storm Cindy hitting Port Arthur in 1979, but my first real memory of a hurricane was Allen in 1980. I was seven years old. We were vacationing at the time in Galveston as Mom and Dad took me to see the beach,  tour old homes, and to smell the smells of Sea Arama. We also rode on a glass-bottomed boat!

We stayed on the top floor of the Flagship hotel, six stories up and jutting into the Gulf of Mexico. Our room provided me a full ocean view.

For the trip, my father brought a weather radio for hurricane updates. The radio was one of those crude, beautiful brown and silver box units with knob tuners, wire antenna and poor reception. But it was enough to hear the latest NOAA weather bulletins of a Category 5 hurricane churning through the Caribbean.

As Allen entered the Gulf of Mexico, Dad thought it best to end our vacation early and head back home to Orange. Fortunately for us the storm weakened and stayed south, plowing into the coastline south of Brownsville days later.

I well remember Hurricane Alicia making landfall on Galveston Island in 1983. The hurricane provided Orange with tropical storm force winds.  Low, fast moving cloud bands and wind broke small tree limbs. The cool, humid breeze whistled through leaves and wind chimes. I "rode out" Alicia sitting on neighbor Sandy Sanford's front porch.

Though compact in size, Alicia strengthened quickly before coming ashore as a "surprise" Cat 3 storm. I believe I remember the mayor or some other public official in Galveston losing his job for not issuing an evacuation. 21 people died.

Smaller hurricanes affected Southeast Texas later in the 1980s. Hurricane Bonnie moved inland 60 miles southwest of Orange with 85mph wind in 1986. Tropical Storm Allison dumped 20.73 inches of rain at my house in one week in 1989 ( I recorded my rain gauge total every day in my Weather Channel calendar), and most of Southeast Texas received another good dumpage of rain from the better known T.S. Allison of 2001 which flooded nearly the same area.

And that's it for my tropical weather "survival" stories.

The last major hurricane to affect Orange was Audrey in 1957, though Orange missed the worst of the storm. The largest storm on record for Orange was a massive hurricane in 1886.

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Thursday:

I woke up Thursday morning, September 22 at a Super 8 Motel in Port Aransas, Texas. I was still tired from the day before. I received less than six hours sleep overnight after receiving zero sleep the night before. But I would be plenty awake today as Hurricane Rita was less than 48 hours away.

I checked the NHC's web site, and the hurricane track had indeed shifted eastward, more toward Galveston. The storm looked healthy and well defined on the visible satellite...quite beautiful. (see image on left)

Despite some weakening of the surface winds, the surface pressure remained very low.

Dave Williams called me from Tulsa that morning with his thoughts on the hurricane. He forecast the storm would make more of an eastward turn than predicted. Having chased tornadoes up close with Dave, I trusted his forecast and thoughts.

And his forecast worked for me as I barely had time to analyze the data: we were being kicked out of the Super 8 Motel. Management was closing up despite the hurricane turning away from the lower Texas Coast. As we checked out I told the manager that Port Aransas probably wouldn't see a rain drop.

Since the Super 8 was closing, their usual gourmet breakfast buffet wasn't offered, so I ate one of John's grainola bar looking things instead. It was horrible. It closely resembled trail mix and gravel rather than real food, and the appearance equalled the flavor. I said "thank you" for the breakfast and pretended it tasted good.

First on the day's agenda was replacing the tire from yesterday's blow out. We needed a replacement spare as broken glass, nails, roofing tacks and other souvenirs could provide problems after landfall.

Also scheduled for the day would be a stop in Indianola, a Matagorda Bay ghost town washed away by past hurricanes. After Indianola, we would travel to Houston or Galveston to meet up again with the San Antonio crew for a live broadcast by 5pm.

John and I left town heading northeast on Highway 35 toward Victoria.  Businesses in Rockport and Fulton were nailed shut as we drove through. We figured a larger town like Victoria would more likely have an open tire store.

We arrived in Victoria before 11am,  just seconds before a Firestore store boarded up, so naturally we invited ourselves in.

We also needed fuel. John and the bad tire remained at the Firestone while I drove around looking for gas. It took 30 minutes to locate an open gas station! In a town of 60,000 people, the Sam's Club was the only thing open with fuel left-- I made a note to keep my Sam's card membership active... you never know.

And the gasoline shortage was not a shocker; we knew that fueling might be the biggest challenge in the coming days. The two emergency spare tanks strapped to the roof rack might not be enough. The combination of a smallish gas tank, bad gas mileage and heavy idling limited the Blazer's cruising range.

I drove back to Firestore after I gassed up and picked up John and the new spare tire.  Now we needed lunch, but nothing was open.

All eating places including the "always open, 24 hours" Whataburger were closed.  I hadn't eaten a regular meal in 24 hours... We needed more asphalt-flavored breakfast bars.

We pulled into Greater Indianola at 1pm, quickly discovering why the tiny town doesn't show up on most maps. The town no longer exists with only some ruins, memorial plaques, and a statue to mark the town. Old railroad track supports leading to nowhere remained. 

During its heyday in the late 1800s, Indianola boasted a population of 5,000 and was the county seat of Calhoun county. The port was the second largest in Texas, but large hurricanes in 1875 and 1886 washed away the town.  Indianola could never withstand a major storm surge as the town sat just inches about the water. 

Today the remains of the courthouse sit underwater about 100 yards from shore following the direction of old railroad planks.

The trip to Indianola also brought me back to the Gulf waters for a check of Hurricane Rita. The water was choppy, but nothing alarming. Looking out across the bay, I could see no obvious indications of a hurricane. There were no distant outer cirrus rings or anything to be seen except for plenty of blue Texas sky, though I spotted several shrimping vessels heading to shore.

Landfall is 37 hours away.
The western eyewall of Hurricane Audrey crossed over Orange, TX in 1957. This radar image from Lake Charles shows the approaching hurricane. I placed an orange dot where Orange is located (get it?!)
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Thursday's 10am update from the NHC shows a sharper turn toward the upper Texas coast. Click the image above.
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Beautiful isn't she? Click the photo above for a huge, 5mb image of the hurricane at peak intensity. Make sure and look inside the "eye".
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Obligatory Texas A&M photo.... Dat Nguyen is seen here from the 1998 Aggie football team, the last year the Aggies were good.
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I took this picture between Freeport and Galveston as the wave action is much more intense.
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Fox 23 and our two spare gas tanks join the media frenzy in Galveston. Now we just need a hurricane.
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Shepard Smith reports for Fox News Channel. I decided to untuck my shirt too after seeing this.
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The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 was likely a Category 4 storm. Landfall occurred on western Galveston Island, putting the storm surge in the city of Galveston.
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A combination of mist and sea foam from the pounding waves produce a hazy sky over Galveston.
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Here's a black and white image of the waves crashing into the Seawall and piers.
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Boarded up gas stations were a common sight along the Gulf Coast. What stations stayed open sold out their fuel supply.
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Thursday afternoon, a day and half before landfall, Matagorda Bay is a peaceful place.
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This historical marker stands near the coastline as the original townsite of Indianola sits underwater today. Click the image to read the historical marker.
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Tires age quickly on Oklahoma highways as this tire was new earlier in the year.

After finishing up the Indianola news story, we traveled northeastward again through Bay City toward Lake Jackson. Most traffic was going the other way to escape the hurricane. I made notes of which motels were staying open in case we needed facilities.

At 2pm, Fox 23 News in Tulsa called us, and they provided instructions to meet the San Antonio crew in Galveston. To get to Galveston, John and I turned toward Freeport so that we could enter Galveston Island from the southwest...we wanted to avoid the evacuation mess in Houston.

Freeport was a ghost town when we passed through at 3:30pm. We didn't observe a single other moving vehicle aside from occasional law enforcement folks. The four lanes of concrete freeway  were vacant. The local mall had no cars. Every business was closed.

John and I were really hungry, and I had not sniffed a regular meal in over 24 hours so we got creative. An outdoor vending machine at a boarded up hotel provided us some extra bottled water and M&Ms.

From Freeport, we drove along a local road to an unmanned toll bridge into Galveston. A marsh fire delayed us slightly, and we arrived just 25 minutes early for the 5pm broadcast.

Wow, we're in Galveston, Texas, I almost feel at home!

The city looked cleaner than I remembered with lots of new construction on the west side. I also got great views of the Gulf of Mexico as we drove up the seawall. There was much more wave action now with lots of sea foam...a hurricane is coming... Landfall is 33 hours away.

The media circus! As we have a large hurricane, we have the expected national media overrun.

Every single news organization I could think of was here. Local, national, even international news crews were in place. Dozens of satellite trucks parked and lined the seawall.

Two satellite trucks down from ours, Sheppard Smith reported live for Fox News Channel. He retreated to a rented Toyota Highlander to stay cool between live shots. The Weather Channel's Stephanie Abrams was also near. I guess I looked somewhat interesting as an international reporter filmed me as I prepared for my live broadcast.

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When I'm around big name media folks, I pretend it's no big deal to chat with them, only to call my wife afterward and tell her "guess who I just saw!" The gawking is somewhat of a role reversal as I sometimes notice Tulsa folks staring and whispering about me when I'm buying groceries. Third graders think I'm famous...

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During my 5pm broadcast, l pointed out the rising water as the ocean level climbed a foot during the hour. The waves crashed loudly behind me. The seawall bottom was still visible as the water crept within 20 yards of the bottom...let's not step back too far...

But aside from the waves, there were few clues that a hurricane would crash ashore in 32 hours. The blue sky remained clear and the wind blew from the Gulf at only 10mph-- pretty much a typical hot, humid Texas summer day. I can see how the "Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900" surprised local dwellers and weather bureau forecaster Isaac Cline (
Isaac's Storm). Thinking back on my readings of that event,  I decided to shoot a news package on the 1900 hurricane for tonight's 9pm newscast.

John and I drove around Galveston after the 5pm news, and we spied a convenience store. The store was still open! Signs of life...let's investigate.

The store was open! Yes, a food opportunity!

Dinner is served...sort of...we purchased Banquet TV dinners. I don't actually remember eating a Banquet dinner on purpose, nor have I every microwaved a TV dinner in same place I purchased it, but it was yummy after going hungry for 30 hours! From the limited offerings at the store, I also bought a box of cereal. I didn't know at the time that my next meal wouldn't arrive for 48 more hours...Landfall is 30 hours away.

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Other than the noisy waves, the first indicators of the hurricane became apparent to me by 7pm.

The wind shifted to the northeast.  Cirrus cloud bands which were the outter clouds from the hurricane became illuminated by the setting sun...quite pretty actually. The ocean water level subtly crept upward another foot-- the beach would disappear in 2 hours...

Sunset at 7:30pm produced a hazy sky over Galveston, similar to a high ozone day in bigger cities. But the haze consisted of small suspended mist droplets and sea salts ejected into the city from the surf. The humidity was really high too as my knit shirt stuck to my chest despite the modest temps.

Standing atop the 17 foot Galveston seawall, I gazed outward at the ocean. Waves crashed the wall with more force and volume. Smaller waves were replaced with less frequent taller waves.

The Gulf gradually tossed trash atop the seawall: wood, plastics, styrofoam and other treasures were visible. Passing ships sometimes dump their trash having it later wash up on Texas beaches. But how much of the trash could be blamed on Hurricane Katrina from three weeks earlier?

My 9pm broadcast that night was awful. Well it probably wasn't awful, but it sure felt that way as we had communication and camera issues. Having high expectations I was not pleased, but the changing weather conditions made me forget about the live shot.

By 10pm the northeast wind increased to 10-15mph and occasional ocean spray moistened the top of the seawall. The beach was completely gone now and some of the bigger waves continued to throw trash out of the water. Landfall is 29 hours away.

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John and I stayed Thursday night at a Comfort Inn on Seawall Boulevard. The hotel remained open to make a few bucks off the media. The parking lot was filled with news trucks instead of family SUVs.

From our room we watched local Houston newscasts. Their live shot reporters were too cliched for my tastes: "Batten down the hatches...it's going to only get worse before it gets better.....the worst is yet to come..." A reporter seemed alarmed by 15mph wind blowing around an empty Big Gulp cup.

I powered up my laptop for a check of the weather. The left side of the storm appeared cooler on the IR satellite and the winds decreased to 145mph. Hurricane Rita would likely continue turning right meaning the worst of the storm would pass east of Galveston-- this wasn't good news for my hometown of Orange. Landfall is 28 hours away.

I knew I should rest up for the days ahead, but the ocean called me at midnight for a final look before bed.

I put on some shoes, grabbed the video camera and walked alone to the seawall. I pretty much had the seawall to myself as most media folks were shut down for the night.

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Looking out over the darkness of the Gulf of Mexico the sound of waves dominated everything, even drowning out the few passing cars. Water rose another foot as huge waves lapped and thundered into the seawall. The wave action turned the salty water whiter every hour. I could make out plenty of sea foam and white waves despite the midnight darkness.

High cirrus slowly thickened overhead and a few airborne sea gulls appeared motionless as they fought the northeast wind.

My handheld wind gauge showed a constant 15-20mph wind, and I cooled quickly wearing only shorts and a t-shirt. My video camera malfunctioned as it didn't like  being exposed to the ocean air.

Nerves were settling in for the first time too. Would the hurricane continue turning toward the TX/LA state line? Probably. What about Mom in Orange? She really didn't want to evacuate but might not have a choice. A final decision would come tomorrow morning after looking at the new data.

But did we have enough gas to make the 100 mile drive to Orange? Probably so, but there wouldn't be enough fuel to return to Houston where the San Antonio crew and satellite truck would probably set up. The San Antonio crew might rather cover Houston instead of the lesser populated Beaumont/ Port Arthur/ Orange "Golden Triangle" area.

Would Mom's house in Orange survive? Likely not if the hurricane hit with 145mph wind. The roof needed some work, and the structural integrity would be threatened if the storm maintained strength and kept turning right.

And where exactly do we think we will be during landfall? Galveston? Houston? Beaumont? Orange? Tim Marshall and other storm gurus ride are known to ride these things out in parking garages-- I might not like that idea much. And due to the storm surge, we needed to be at least 30 miles inland.

Landfall was now 26 hours away. In the morning, I would need to make precise calculations and forecasts to insure we had time to rescue my Mother, shoot a news story, prepare for landfall and stay alive.

Walking back to the hotel room, I called my wife. I might be out of touch tomorrow.
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Download a QuickTime movie of the waves as seen from the Galveston Seawall at 6pm
Day 2 continued...
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This proved an excellent forecast from the NHC two days away as landfall occured only about 50 miles east of the line. This track already put Houston "in the clear" as the city got dry slotted from the southwest. Though Orange and SE Texas would receive full brunt of the wind, a 10-20 foot storm surge may have caused more problems if this exact track held.
Continue to Orange for Day 3
Continue to Orange for Day 3
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Highway 288 through Freeport is completely vacant.