55th Anniversary of Hurricane Carla


Track of research flight on Sept. 10, 1961 into Hurricane Carla
Track of research flight on Sept. 10, 1961 into Hurricane Carla

On September 11, 1961, Hurricane Carla made landfall at Port O’Connor, Texas, bringing storm surge, torrential rains, high wind gusts and tornadoes to northern Texas and Louisiana.  Carla was the first tropical cyclone to have its entire life history recorded by research flights.

Carla formed from a persistent area of disturbed weather in the southern Caribbean Sea.  On Sept. 3rd, a tropical depression formed roughly 200 miles (300 km) north of the Colombian coast.  The next day, the U.S. Weather Bureau’s two DC-6 research aircraft flew investigatory missions into the depression, recovering in Kingston, Jamaica.  The depression moved slowly northward and by the next day it had reached tropical-storm level and was named.  A second round of research flights on Sept. 6th found that Carla had become a hurricane as it moved slowly northwestward toward the Yucatan.

The hurricane’s center skirted around the peninsula, and once it moved away from land, Carla strengthened into a major hurricane.  When the two DC-6 research planes penetrated Carla again on Sept. 8th, the winds were up to 125 mph (200 km/hr).  This day they were joined by USWB’s B-57 high-altitude jet and the B-54 investigating the storm.

The storm resumed a northwesterly heading and made a slow but steady approach toward Texas.  Another four-plane series of flights into the storm found the hurricane at the same intense level, with the aircraft recovering at Kelly AFB in Texas to be closer to the storm on its approach.  On Aug. 10th, the forward pace of Carla had reduced to an agonizingly slow crawl, but the storm winds ramped up.  The DC-6s and B-57 found Carla’s maximum sustained winds had reached 150 mph (240 km/hr) and were increasing as they left the storm to recover at Dallas, TX.

Hurricane Carla depicted on Galveston radar on Sept. 10, 1961
Hurricane Carla depicted on Galveston radar on Sept. 10, 1961

National attention was now focused on the looming storm, and local Houston reporter Dan Rather persuaded the CBS national news to extend their coverage to include his reports from the Texas shore.  On the 11th Carla was now being tracked by coastal radar stations.  Only one DC-6 was available for research as the hurricane approached the coast, finding the winds were decreasing from the peak values earlier that day of 175 mph (280 km/hr).  As it came ashore the maximum sustained winds were down to 145 mph (230 km/hr).

Hurricane Carla 1961 rainfall (NOAA/WPC)
Hurricane Carla 1961 rainfall

It struck Matagorda Island and Port O’Conner with devastating gusts, destroying thousands of buildings and inundating Sabine Pass with a surge of 10 feet (3 m). Although the central winds fell as the storm moved inland, Carla spawned 26 tornadoes in Texas and Louisiana.  And it dumped up 17 inches (432 mm) of rain along the Texas coast.  Heavy rains followed its track as a low-pressure cell through the Midwest up to the Great Lakes.  Carla left 43 dead in its wake and US$325 million in damages.

Some papers that came from our research into Hurricane Carla:

Black, P. G., and R. A. Anthes, 1971:  On the asymmetric structure of the tropical cyclone outflow layer.  J. Atmos. Sci., 28, 1348-1366.

Colón, J. A., and Nightingale, Lt. Cdr. W. R., 1963:  Development of tropical cyclones in relation to circulation patterns at the 200-millibar level.  Mon. Wea. Rev., 91, 329-336.

Koss, W. J., 1966:  Objective analysis of pressure height data for the tropics.  Mon. Wea. Rev., 94, 237-257.

Sanders, F., and R. W. Burpee, 1968:  Experiments in barotropical hurricane track forecasting.  J. Appl. Meteor., 7, 313-323.