MERCEDES, RGV – A local meteorologist says the Rio Grande Valley’s flood control system has improved since 1967’s Hurricane Beulah, but is uncertain if today’s infrastructure can sustain two major storms in a short time period.
The United States Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission (USIBWC) held a public meeting in Mercedes to discuss the 50-year history of Hurricane Beulah and if the Valley’s flood control system can sustain major storms.
At the USIBWC office, Barry Goldsmith, Warning Coordination Meteorologist of the National Weather Service, gave a presentation on how Hurricane Beulah developed and evolved, the damages and costs, and the potential destruction of a storm like that today.
After midnight on September 20, 1967, a Category 5 hurricane directly struck the Valley and caused major devastation in the region. Ron Whitlock, who was working as a young reporter for K-Rio 910 AM at the time, said the hurricane was downgraded to a Category 3 storm as it reached the mainland. He said the real damage was done by flooding many days later, when torrential rain came back down the mountains around Monterrey and burst the banks of the Rio Grande.
At the presentation, Goldsmith showed photos of the destruction and flooding of the hurricane, and said there was 15 to 25 inches of rainfall region-wide.
“This is the 50th anniversary of the landfall of Hurricane Beulah in September 1967,” Goldsmith said. “That was one of the most impactful storms for the Rio Grande Valley, and for most people it still remains the storm of record, even though we had other events here, that’s the one people still refer back to as a devastating and catastrophic event depending on where you lived here.”
The powerful hurricane produced over 115 tornadoes in south central Texas, killing four people. In total, between 11 to 15 people died due to the hurricane, but the recorded number remains ‘fuzzy,’ Goldsmith said.
Damages and cost of the storm were an estimated $2 billion in 2017 currency, the meteorologist said, but emphasized the purpose of the meeting was to prepare for a devastating storm like Hurricane Beulah.
“Anywhere between 115 and 141 tornadoes, that record is still kind of suspect, but it was the number one tornado-producing hurricane until 2004 when Ivan replaced that storm as a storm of tornadoes of record,” Goldsmith said. “Other damages added up to $100 million in 1967 dollars for the Rio Grande Valley. If you take that into 2017 terms, straight up, it would be about $2 billion. That doesn’t include the four times increase in the population as well as the rapid and dramatic growth of the urban infrastructure as well as the agricultural infrastructure, which is now a billion dollar business. So we’re thinking it would be somewhere between five perhaps north of $10 billion in damage should an equivalent storm like Beulah strike in 2017.”
Goldsmith said the biggest concern would be the most vulnerable areas in the region, which include South Padre Island, Port Isabel, the east side of Brownsville, the Port of Brownsville and other flood prone areas in the Valley. Reminding people of a hurricane like Beulah, that caused major flooding, rainfall, and wind damage, would be a good opportunity to prepare those vulnerable areas.
“Well the best thing we could learn is that people are still alive to tell the tale of what they experienced in 1967,” Goldsmith said. “They can share that with their children, their grandchildren and spread the idea that this could happen again in a relatively short time frame. It may not happen again, but it gives the opportunity to plan and prepare for it. What we don’t have all the answers for is whether the infrastructure, from agricultural to urban, is able to handle what a Beulah in 2017 would bring.”
Goldsmith said the Valley’s flood control system would be able to handle a storm like Hurricane Beulah today, but is concerned for a worse case scenario. If two major storms hit the region within a four to five week time frame, the infrastructure may or may not preserve.
“We do believe that the flood control system that’s been upgraded and enhanced and improved over the years, including what we saw in 2010, which worked pretty well, would be able to handle a Beulah like storm now,” Goldsmith said. “But if that storm came on the heels of a storm that occurred, lets say, four or five weeks earlier, in a rare case that would happen, we don’t know the answer to how the flood control system would work.”
The unknown if the Valley’s flood control system could handle two storms in a short time period, depends on whether cities are able to respond to infrastructure damage swiftly. Goldsmith gave an example on how Weslaco handled major flooding in 2015, which required watercraft rescue, and questions if other cities like Weslaco have improved their drainage system.
“In October of 2015, parts of the city of Weslaco had estimated 14 inches of rainfall in about 6 hours, and in those areas that had that, there were three to five feet of water depth that required watercraft rescues of apartments and homes, what have you, where that water became life threatening,” Goldsmith said.
“A hurricane like Beulah could produce up to 24 inches or even 30 inches of rain, as we saw in Starr County that could just as well be in Hidalgo County. What would happen to that part of Weslaco now? Have they improved the drainage to handle that kind of rapid water flow or will there be now 8 to 10 feet of water, which will be really life threatening for people that don’t evacuate or move to higher ground before the storm. What about Edinburg, what about McAllen, what about Harlingen? We know Brownsville has flood prone areas, what about Brownsville? So is the drainage able to hold up with that amount of rain over the course of, let’s say, just 24 hours? We don’t have answers to that.”
Goldsmith said it’s crucial to prepare for a modern Hurricane Beulah, a reminder on the 50th anniversary to improve the drainage systems and evacuation plans for flood prone areas and across the Valley.
“We have to prepare for that reasonable worst case scenario, assuming that all drainages isn’t equal, that all drainages wont be able to handle, and do we have to make a decision before the storm arrives for communities to evacuate on mass, even inland, from the flooding rain, not just the wind, but the flooding rain, or do they have a place to go that will be safe on higher ground because there will be some high ground that will be okay, but where would those places be? Have we determined all those places?
Those are questions that we still need to answer before that next storm comes and so Beulah really reminds us that we have to answer those questions and that’s why using the 50th anniversary to ramp up the mindset of what if, what if, what if, is a great way to help our communities be better prepared if the if becomes a when.”