An Interview with Kay Snow on Hurricane Carla of ‘61

Hurricane Carla hit land in September of 1961. At the time, Kay Snow’s family was living in Cedar Creek, Texas, a small town situated on the Gulf of Mexico south of Houston, Texas.

“When you live on the coast, you get hurricane warnings every year,” says Snow. “Hurricanes move fast or they stall in the water…my father just never believed that it was gonna to come.”

But it did come.

It made landfall as a category 4 — which at the time made it the most powerful tropical storm to have hit Texas in 40 years. Wind speeds reached over 150 miles an hour making it a formidable force. It caused a storm surge of 22 feet that penetrated 10 miles inland in some places causing more than $300 million in damages in Texas, and $2 billion in damages overall. The hurricane formed on Sept. 3, 1961, in the western Caribbean Sea and dissipated on Sept. 16, 1961. Snow recalls that Hurricane Carla lasted three days in her hometown.

“I can only imagine what my dad felt when looking at the shambles of what was once his life. He built his house from the ground up. I remember his saying that the house would be so safe,” says Snow. “He built it of concrete block, you see, so that was the safest of all materials for a storm.”

Snow describes the creek that ran behind their house as “not quite a river but more than a creek.” It emptied into the Gulf of Mexico fairly close to where the Snows lived. The flow of the tide determined whether it carried salt water or fresh water. She says their house was fairly typical but she remembers how her father painted the living room walls what he called “sunset gray,” inspired by the muted tones of the dusk sky.
The skies were certainly gray when Hurricane Carla touched ground.

Given the power and size of the hurricane, it is surprising that it claimed only 43 lives — a statistic that likely would have been much higher if not for the fast evacuation of more than 500,000 people from the area.

“They called for the immediate evacuation for the region, but my father was a very head strong man and felt he was better off staying,” says Snow. “Nothing could talk my dad into leaving Caney Creek…he kept insisting that either it wouldn’t hit at all, or if it did, it wouldn’t be as strong as the news suggested. Finally, down to the wire, we talked him into gathering what things he could and coming to Houston and safety. He had just enough time to pack one bag and get out before the brunt of the storm hit.”

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Galveston Airport recorded 16.49″ of rain in the four-day period involving Hurricane Carla. Low-lying areas, like Cedar Creek, experienced extensive flooding with the storm.

The house did not survive the storm — all that remained was rubble. “Anything that the wind or the water could carry away,” says Snow, “it did carry away.” The family lost almost all of their mementos and keepsakes. Snow had recently graduated from school that spring and had taken a few items to her aunt’s house in Houston, where she was staying at the time of the hurricane. However, aside from the few pictures she took with her, items from her childhood and belongings of her recently deceased mother remained at Cedar Creek and were all swept away during the storm.

She recalls her father’s anger after the storm. His lost his wife to cancer a few months before he lost his home to Hurricane Carla. He gave up on the life he had always known in Cedar Creek and moved to a travel trailer inland. He never returned to the coast.

Snow does not recall people in her community doing much to secure memories, or prepare much at all (preparedness resources), for that matter. “Sargent, Texas, was the nearest real town and resources were hard to come by,” she says.

The family survived and fortunately their home insurance came through after her father proved that “rushing water and wind” the toppled the house, not just “rising water.”
“The lesson in this story is what not to do — my dad thought that the house would be great. It protected us from hot temperatures and but it couldn’t protect us from hurricane-force winds,” says Snow. “I saw on the television show Extreme Makeover – Home Edition that they built a round house for people who had been through Katrina! No corners — they said that any hurricane winds and water would rush around the house.”

Round houses may protect a home, but it was the evacuation that saved lives during Hurricane Carla.