Celia: Blown away
It was 40 years ago on Tuesday, Aug. 3, that Hurricane Celia blasted through the Coastal Bend, devastating the region with winds gusting to more than 160 mph. The hurricane was responsible for Celia: Blown the deaths of a dozen people and property damage valued at $500 million.
Celia became a hurricane on Aug. 1, 1970, in the Gulf of Mexico, and intensified rapidly. “As it moved over land, spectacular damage occurred from a cluster of high-energy winds of short duration, also called downbursts or micro-bursts,” according to the Texas Department of Insurance, which includes profiles on its Web site of major hurricanes that have struck Texas over the years.
Bill Behrens, a Port Aransas resident then and now, flew over Mustang Island in a small plane the day after Celia struck.
“About one-third of the town had minor damage, and another third had more damage, like missing roofs, but with the major part of the house still standing,” Behrens said. “In the last third, all that was left was just pilings, the deck and the commode. That was all that was left.”
Behrens evacuated prior to the hurricane. He and his family stayed in Victoria. He remembers listening to Corpus Christi-based radio stations just before Celia struck.
“They all were saying, ‘Here it comes,’ ” Behrens recalled. “Then, one by one, the stations went off the air, until the only one we could get was from Kingsville. All of the Corpus Christi stations were off the air. That was an ominous thing.” Waiting at the ferry landing to get back into town, Behrens noticed something strange.
“I remember kind of remarking that a lot of volunteers directing traffic were drinking beer,” he said.
Behrens, who lived in the 600 block of Lantana Drive, found that Celia had ripped an entire wooden porch from neighbor’s house and threw it against the wall of his house. That opened a large hole that allowed wind to gust through his house, causing further damage.
The main skeleton of the structure, however, remained intact. After repairs, Bill and his wife, Barbara, and their children, Mikael and Amy, continued living in the house, on and off, over the years. Bill and Barbara still reside there today.
Johnny Roberts rode out Celia in Port Aransas. During the first half of the storm, he and his wife, Pudge, his mother, Laura, and a friend, Steve Frishman, stayed in Roberts’ two-story home on Anchor Drive.
“When it began to hit the house with full force, I looked up in the attic, and I could see the roof beginning to breathe up and down,” said Roberts, now 86. “I said to the group, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen wind like this before, and I think we’d better go downstairs.’ ”
The four retreated to the bottom story of the structure. Then, when the eye passed over, they left the house for a safer place: In an underground garage on the property commonly known over the years as “Summer Place,” on 12th Street.
After the Celia had passed, Roberts found that the hurricane had blown a pagoda off the top of his house, ripped away a porch and caved in a garage door. The ice cream shop he owned, Custard’s Last Stand (where the Venetian Hot Plate restaurant is today) was heavily damaged.
“The Arzolas didn’t evacuate because, Esther said, forecasters were predicting the hurricane wouldn’t be so bad. And, by the time they realized how bad it was going to be, and they finished securing their property, it was too late to leave. The house came through the storm pretty much unscathed.
But many nearby residents weren’t so lucky.
Heading to Port Aransas after the hurricane swept through, Esther was horrified to see many homes that had been pulverized. One house had been flung into the middle of State Hwy. 35 between Ingleside and Aransas Pass.
“It was such an emotional shock, driving down the highway and seeing all that destruction,” said Esther, who now works as the city secretary of Port Aransas. “You realize: This could have happened to us. And we had the kids with us! And that’s when I realized: Never again would I stay for a hurricane.”
When Celia struck, Totsy and Ann Belcher were living in a one-story house near the present-day Neptune’s.
After the storm rolled through, the Belchers marveled at how widely ranging the hurricane’s effects were.
“One house would be completely gone,” said Totsy, a longtime fishing guide. “And then the one next to it wouldn’t be touched. It was as if there was a tornado.”
The Belchers’ house lost part of its roof and some windows. And Totsy found a 55-gallon drum full of oil lying in his living room. He didn’t know where it came from, but he knew how it arrived.
“It came through the front door, evidently, because it took that front door out,” Totsy said.
Fourteen-year-old Billy Gaskins went surfing the day before Celia made landfall.
But, while sitting on his surfboard, he heard emergency sirens going off in town, warning folks that the hurricane was imminent. Later, he joined his father, Bill Gaskins, who was putting storm shutters up on windows. (Bill died at the age of 83 in 2007.)
Bill and I.B. Magee owned the Family Center IGA at the time. Bill decided to ride out Celia in the store. It was on relatively high ground, so it seemed like a good choice at the time. I.B.’s son, Pat, who operated Pat Magee Surf Shop in Port Aransas, stowed some of his surfboards in the store to protect them during the storm.
Billy and his father hunkered down in the grocery store as the wind began to howl louder and louder.
Suddenly, the store’s roof was torn away.
Standing near the cash registers, Billy and his father threw themselves to the floor to avoid being hit by flying debris.
“I remember looking up and seeing all of Pat Magee’s boards going up into the air, like a giant vacuum cleaner was sucking them out,” Billy said.
Father and son belly-crawled into a walk-in freezer for more protection. When the eye of the hurricane began passing over, they went outside.
“It looked like a norther was coming in every direction, but straight up, there was blue sky,” Billy said.
The two drove to 11th Street to check on their home. Most of it was destroyed, but Billy found his two pets inside, unharmed. They were Lena, a Labrador retriever, and Cassius, a small woolly monkey – a primate from South America.
Billy got his pets, jumped into the truck with his father and headed toward the city marina to check on their boat, a 65-foot party boat called the Marlin Queen. On their way, they ran into high water on Cut-off Road. It killed the truck’s engine.
They walked – and waded through waist-deep water – the rest of the way to the marina. They monkey stood on Billy’s shoulder, and the dog walked. And swam.
They found that Celia’s high tides had broken the Marlin Queen from its moorings, and it was floating above an adjacent parking lot. As the water level rapidly fell, the boat became hung up on top of pilings, punching holes in the hull. The vessel later sank.
With Celia’s eye nearly past and the backside of the hurricane beginning to rev up, Billy and his father found themselves without transportation or shelter. They broke into the White Marlin restaurant on Cotter Avenue and stayed in there until the storm ended.
When the hurricane was past, Billy and his father headed back to the grocery store. That night, they slept on inflatable plastic beach floats in the store parking lot.
When Billy fell asleep, his monkey was there with him. The next morning, Billy awoke to find the monkey was gone. He went inside the store and found candy wrappers scattered everywhere.
“My monkey is lying there, and his gut looks like it’s got a basketball in it,” Billy said, laughing. “He was sick as a dog for about a month after that.”
Recovery in Port Aransas was difficult in the weeks after Celia struck, Roberts said.
“It was rough,” he said. “The worst thing I ever saw. It was a lot of devastation. Houses destroyed, businesses destroyed.”
For more than a year after Hurricane Celia, Ann Belcher lived in a trailer issued by the federal government to hurricane victims. (Totsy was working out of town.)
“It was comfortable,” Ann said the trailer. “Kind flimsy. But that beat nothing. We appreciated getting it.” With power the entire island out, and the Family Center’s freezers conked out, the store gave away all its meat market goods to the Red Cross, which was serving meals to storm victims at the Community Center, Gaskins said.
Behrens recalled that, once the Island Food Store started getting back on its feet in the days after Celia, the store’s café began serving meals again. But, for a time, the menu was severely limited.
“Everyone who went into that restaurant on a given night had the same meal until they got more supplies in,” Behrens said.
The days immediately after Celia “were horrible,” Gaskins asid. “It was hot. You had to sleep outside. And there were mosquitoes.”
Electrical service was gone for weeks. But the Red Cross, National Guard and other organizations distributed ice, bottled drinking water and other basics.
The town pulled together.
“There was some hardship, but … everywhere you went, people were helping each other, nailing things down or putting plastic sheets over holes in buildings,” Behrens said. “And everyone had a cooler full of ice and beer.”
Eventually, dozens of trucks from the power company arrived and gradually restored electricity to town over the course of many days of work.
Roberts said he wouldn’t stay through another hurricane, partly because there’s always the possibility of injury or death.
“That’s always something to think about,” he said. “You get a little older, you get a little wiser, hopefully.”