BEHEMOTHS OF A STORMS

Amy M Hay's picture

September has been brutal. Barely a heartbeat passed before Hurricane Harvey’s destruction of Houston was followed by Irma’s devastation of entire Caribbean islands and the Florida coast. Irma was declared a “500-year” rain event, while Harvey ranks as a “1000-year” flood event. And they happened within two weeks of each other. (The storms mark the first time the U.S. has been hit by two Category 4 storms in the same year, let alone the same month.) Scientific consultants and environmentalists were called “anti-development” when they warned Houston civic leaders about development that erased important wetlands, increase housing development in the floodplain, and resisted building code reforms. The storms have also ignited a national conversation about climate change. One Florida resident tweeted in response to EPA chief Scott Pruitt’s charge that discussing climate change while hurricanes struck communities showed “insensitivity” to Floridians, “This is bullshit. . . . I just evacuated. I f'ing want us all talking about climate change.” We can no longer avoid this conversation.

This September, however, also marks a different storm in the fiftieth anniversary of Hurricane Beulah. Beulah made landfall in Brownsville, Texas, on September 20, 1967. The storm caused severe flooding and cost roughly $1 billion, second only to Hurricane Betsy at that time. It also spawned more than 100 tornadoes that accounted for most of the deaths associated with the storm, killing over 650 total. The National Weather Service considered the storm one of the worst Gulf storms of the century, and the name Beulah was retired. For people living in the Rio Grande Valley the hurricane marked a watershed moment as it highlighted the healthcare needs of the region.

Dr. Mario Ramirez emerged as one of the heroes during in the aftermath of Beulah, leading medical care efforts in Rio Grande City and administering to both American and Mexican refugees. Mexican organizations sent aid to Valley residents, such as mobile aid trucks with radios, spare parts, and driven by mechanics helped areas hit by Beulah. (Contrast this with the current-day border patrol’s decision to maintain border checkpoints.) Ramirez also took President Lyndon B. Johnson and Texas governor John Connally on their tour of the area as they surveyed the damage done. Residents considered the hurricane a watershed moment, noticing changes in their local environments – a disappearance of horned frogs for instance – although they remain less clear about more significant transformations.

So what do we know fifty years later? We know that such storms affect the natural and built environments in ways that simple economic calculations obscure. Conjunto legend Gilberto Perez wrote a corrido, a traditional Mexican ballad – “Las Crecientes de Beulah” – immortalizing the hurricane. As a consequences of climate change, we know that more of these storms will happen. So studying how people were affected and responded and what changes local, state, and national agencies made become all the more important as we face more such severe weather. And good historians will recover the voices and experiences of ordinary people dealing with extraordinary circumstances. The “behemoth of a storm” and others like it tell us much about how we used to deal with disaster and suggest ways we should respond in the future. In places like the Valley which have undergone tremendous population growth, disaster planning depends on studying past examples (and failures). Reminding us of past crises is the first step in changing consciousness and making different choices, choices that better address who pays the price for the decisions made. Remembering reminds us that things can get worse, and that an ounce of prevention may be worth a pound of cure.