Disasters: Essa v. Beulah

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When hurricanes spin in to rake the land with their multimegatons of atmospheric energy, death tolls are often high. The great Galveston blow of 1900 took 7,000 lives; a "killer hurricane" that struck Florida and the West Indies in 1928 left 4,000 dead in its wake. In India, where the whirling warm-water storms are called "cyclones," 11,000 Bengalis perished in a 1942 assault. Last week, as Hurricane Beulah—the third most powerful blow ever to hit Texas—slammed into the populous Rio Grande Valley and coursed its crushing way inland, only ten deaths were reported—one of them a 15-year-old girl surfer swept from her board while braving Beulah's mountainous waves.

The low death toll was largely attributable to the technology of mid-century America. Thanks to a covey of "Hurricane Hunter" aircraft and a hat-box-shaped, 320-lb. weather satellite called Essa (for the Commerce Department's Environmental Science Services Administration), Beulah's every move was tracked and reported round the clock by radio, thus permitting more than 150,000 Texans to dodge the big storm's flailing fist. Watching from a polar orbit 865 miles above the earth, Essa's twin TV cameras gave the Texas Gulf Coast twelve days' advance warning on her course. In the Caribbean and Mexico, where Beulah rampaged for two weeks before striking Texas, the storm took about 40 lives—in part because of inadequate radio warning. By the time she had deteriorated into a gusty rainstorm over south Texas at week's end, Beulah had wrought up to $1 billion in damage.

Angry Hornets. Beulah's freshest fury was expended on the dun-colored delta of the Rio Grande and the tiny ports that dot the Gulf Coast. Port Isabel (pop. 4,000), a shrimp-fishing village, was smashed by 150 m.p.h. winds; only a lighthouse and a newly built brick bank were left undamaged, along with Captain G. D. Kennedy, who with his wife and his handmade 60-ft. shrimp boat rode out the storm with diesel engines and good seamanship.

Beulah's eye, packing the power of 150 hydrogen bombs in its screaming winds, passed just offshore of Brownsville (pop. 53,000), piling scores of shrimpers, each costing from $35,000 to $50,000, into hull-shattered heaps of as many as 25 boats each. Gusts up to 109 m.p.h. threw horizontal sheets of rain so fast that, to one observer, they sounded "like a million angry hornets." Plywood shutters, hammered hastily into place on the shop windows of Brownsville's main drag, were shucked off like orange skins; power lines cracked with bullwhip viciousness.

Owing to the instant drop in barometric pressure, windows popped like overblown balloons. Crushed marble roofs provided Beulah with ready ammunition, and car windows throughout the town looked as if they had been sprayed by machine-gun fire. Freeway signs spun through the air like giant razor blades. As the storm passed on, the stench of oil from the ruptured tanks of sunken boats saturated the air.

Along Beulah's track, the air was equally saturated with the steady outpouring of radio information—much of it from hams—reporting the hurricane's moves and the need for instant aid.

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