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When Carla Called

Lake Jackson Historical Museum

Sound | 1960s

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  •  Narrator: It started modestly enough. On Tuesday, September 5th, a storm in the Caribbean began to grow, and the US Weather Bureau advised Yucatan and British Honduras to prepare for winds of hurricane velocity. 
  •  They gave the storm the code name, Carla. Yes, routine enough, but from that modest start arose the most vicious hurricane of this century. 
  •  By Saturday, tides fifteen feet higher than normal were pounding the Texas Gulf Coast. And by Monday, when Carla really hit, the winds were blowing a 150 miles an hour with gust as high as 173 miles an hour.  
  •  Carla cut a path of destruction 200 miles wide along the Texas coast from Corpus Christi to Port Arthur and caused damage from Brownsville to Louisiana. Even after she started dying down, her winds and heavy rain caused trouble as far inland as Oklahoma and Kansas. 
  •  Property damage was estimated at more than $300 million; 44,000 homes and 2,000 other buildings were destroyed and countless others damaged. Nearly half a million people fled inland in the greatest mass evacuation of modern times. 
  •  Before the storm hit, highways leading north were a solid line of cars. Refugees crowded the roads as far north as Dallas, 300 miles inland. To make things worse, Carla was followed by a series of tornadoes that shook the battered region after people thought the worst was over. Some of these tornadoes caused more local destruction than the hurricane itself. 
  •  And as if all this weren’t bad enough, the whole region was plagued by rattlesnakes, thousands of snakes driven from flooded ground to dry land. The snakes were a constant danger to people working in the wrecked buildings and along the roads. 
  •  Yet, despite the record-breaking winds, the floods, the tornadoes, despite the sheer size of the catastrophe, amazingly few lives were lost. Fewer than fifty people were killed compared with literally thousands that have lost their lives in smaller hurricanes in the past. 
  •  And huge as the damage was, it was smaller than it might have been expected. Perhaps equally remarkable was the speed with which the region set about restoration, restoration which in many cases started while the storm was still blowing itself out. 
  •  The fact that loss of life was so small, the damage was not far greater, that restoration began so promptly can be credited to many things: ample warning by the weather bureau; the magnificent work of such organizations as the Coast Guard, Red Cross, civil defense, police and firemen, and the armed forces; and the people themselves with the way they faced and rallied from disaster. The whole story is much too big to be told in one short film. 
  •  So, here we can tell about just one part. It's just a facet, but it's typical of all the things that went to lessen Carla's blows, the advance planning and teamwork, and the hard devoted work of individual men and women. 
  •  So, this is the story of how the telephone company and its people met Carla, and met her they did. For all those, Southwestern Bell suffered $6.5 million damage. Throughout the entire storm, telephone service kept going, handling calls of warning that helped save lives, calls for help, call sending assistance, and thousands and thousands of calls from just plain worried people. 
  •  One hundred sixty-five thousand telephones did go out of service, but most of them were back within a week, and most of the others couldn’t be put back because the buildings in which they were installed were too badly damaged to be used. In the face of Carla's tremendous blows, how was all this possible? 
  •  Well, the story really begins about fifteen years ago when the telephone company started making its lines in buildings as storm-proof as possible. Cables, many of them buried underground, were put in to replace open wire lines on busy routes. The new buildings that were built were designed to take as much punishment as possible from storms and floods. Many older buildings were strengthened. It was a huge job that’s still going on, but it really paid off when Carla struck. 
  •  Here are just a few examples. This little-unattended dial office at Sabine Pass was under six feet of water, but it kept right on operating without missing a call. This area of cable was underwater for several days, but it never missed a message. It was only one of several. 
  •  Beneath this water is an important underground cable. It was never intended for submarine work, but it's still carrying messages, and it was only one of many. Even when a cable did break, it could be repaired relatively quickly. This underground cable was washed bare and broken by huge waves, but it was back in service before the storm was really over. 
  •  Well, storm-proofing made it possible to keep telephone service going and to repair the damage quickly, but even the storm-proofing would have been of less value without something else, the organization and teamwork and the tremendous spirit of thousands of telephone people. 
  •  Even before the hurricane hit, preparations to meet it had begun. This Central Command Center was set up in Houston to obtain a constant picture of the storm. Reports of Carla's progress and damage flowed in continually. From these reports, the center could tell where repairmen, operators or materials were needed and could rush help without delay. Even when the power failed and the windowless building was without lights, the center carried on by using gasoline lanterns and candles. 
  •  Other centers were set up in strategic spots and connected by direct telephone line to the Houston Central Command post. These centers collected reports of damage in their districts and sent help to specific spots where it was needed. 
  •  This pinpointing of trouble and rushing of help played a big part in getting the restoration job done quickly. At the same time, calls for help were sent to the other states served by Southwestern Bell: Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, and Oklahoma. Quickly from these other states, nearly a thousand repairmen with their trucks started pouring towards Texas. They came in waves: trucks, trucks, and more trucks. They came by special freight train from Missouri and Illinois. 
  •  They came by special freight train from Arkansas after gathering first at an assembly point in Little Rock. Trucks, trucks, and still more trucks, it was like an army on the move. They came from Oklahoma, trucks and more trucks in a long convoy. With the urgent need for help, they drove day and night with few stops along the way. They came from Kansas in two convoys that started at Topeka and Wichita but picked up additions as they passed through the state. Again, they drove day and night. 
  •  Like an army, they moved with precision to Texas assembly points. And from these, fanned out again to the spots where they were most needed. 
  •  Other repairmen in these states to the north said goodbye to their families and poured into Texas by train and by plane. And operators came too to help handle the flooded calls that jammed the switchboards and relieved the local girls who in many cases had worked three or four days without leaving the telephone buildings. 
  •  The relieving operators poured in as fast as they could get to Texas from Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. And were they welcome, when forty-three girls from Arkansas took over at Galveston where some of the operators had been getting only two-hours sleep at night. Their welcoming speech was short but from the heart. "We are sure glad to see it. It's been a long week." 
  •  But until this outside help arrived, the burden was upon the local people and the help that could be sent from Texas cities relatively safe from the hurricane. These repair trucks from Lubbock set out on the long drive to Corpus Christi in the middle of the night. It was a tough job, but the local people came through magnificently. Many worked on knowing that their own homes and possessions were being destroyed or had already been lost. 
  •  In Texas City, the homes of nine out of ten telephone people were damaged or destroyed. Yet, they all stuck doggedly to the task of getting through the calls that meant so much to others. Men all over the storm area worked to keep vital lines open even during the height of the hurricane. 
  •  There were many cases of real heroism, too many to even mention. Just as one example, while the storm was at its worst, four men at Galveston carried an emergency power plant for blocks through waist-deep water to keep a hospital switchboard operating. Damage to homes in both Texas City and Galveston was so heavy that the well-built telephone building served as refuges for the families of telephone people. 
  •  Two hundred and fifty slept and ate in the Galveston building while another 150 rode out the storm in the Texas City building. The Texas City building also became temporary police headquarters when the police were flooded up. Incongruously, the police used baby Princess telephones to dispatch their often life and death calls. 
  •  It wasn’t easy for anyone. Families slept and ate wherever they could find a few feet of space. Children, in particular, found the long hours boring. 
  •  The wives of the telephone men worked around the clock too, just like their husbands and the operators. Imagine just one of their jobs trying to feed 200 people three meals a day from one three-burner stove. Long hours, little sleep, hard work, and hanging overall, the knowledge that even then their homes and possessions were being destroyed. Yet, these telephone people and their families, like others throughout the hurricane area, carried on without complaint making the best of what they had, and most important, devoting their efforts to helping others. 
  •  Telephone buildings in other cities; Corpus Christi, Houston, Victoria to name just a few also became refugees but on a smaller scale. In some cases, the telephone families had been flooded out. In others, the men and women brought their families to the buildings, so they could go above their jobs with easier minds knowing that their families at least, if not their homes, were safe. It was one more example of the unselfish devotion to helping others shown all through the hurricane area. 
  •  In the harder hit towns, the hard-pressed operators were given some sleep by having the switchboards manned literally by men during the night: accountants, salesmen, business office people and so forth.  
  •  At Freeport, these men took over almost completely when it became apparent that the building would be flooded. All but a few of the operators were moved to safety in other towns. The men kept handling calls until the building had to be abandoned, the only telephone building evacuated during the storm. 
  •  But you can't fight a hurricane without supplies any more than an army can fight a battle. So, while all this was going on, Western Electric, the supply and manufacturing unit of the Bell System through its nationwide organization, entered the fight knowing from past experience what materials would be most likely to be needed. Western Electric's local distributing houses started rushing supplies to the threatened area even before Carla arrived. 
  •  At the same time, calls were made to other western warehouses around the country, and these, in turn, started shooting supplies to Texas. High priority items were sent by plane. These included many other sixty emergency power plants sent into Texas. 
  •  And other things, well, it was quite a list for anyone. It included 300 miles of cable, 17,000 telephone instruments, 650 miles of wire just for running from houses to telephone poles, test sets, poles, terminals, cable sleeves, even 8,000 batteries. 
  •  When the telephone company needed something, Western Electric had it and sent it right now, sent it by telephone company trucks and by trucks hired locally. 
  •  One telephone man said it was the most striking example of Western Electric's value to the Bell System that he had ever seen. Just suppose, I had to go out and buy all that stuff individually, we couldn’t have even got started for a month. Well, thanks to planning, organization, and teamwork, the supplies and people were in the storm area or on the way, but there still remained a gigantic task of restoration. 
  •  Poles were down; wires were broken. Fallen trees and wreckage lay across thousands of wires and cables. Thousands of telephones had been underwater or were still under it. Yet, the repairmen pitched in with the same spirit shown all the way through, and the results were remarkable. 
  •  In Galveston, doubly hit by a hurricane and tornado, 8,000 telephones were out of service on Tuesday, the day the tornado struck. By Thursday, two days later, 4,500 were working again, and most of the others were in the building that was wrecked or gone completely. 
  •  In Victoria, 5,000 telephones were dead but were back in service in a week. Cables in most cases were repaired quickly. Open wires took longer. In some places, mobile radio sets were brought in to fill gaps until these lines could be repaired. 
  •  Night and day, the work went on, the men working long, long hours. Often, they worked under the lights of searchlights mounted on trucks. They worked under all kinds of conditions, some bad, some worse. They worked in water. They worked in rain. 
  •  They slept, what sleep there was, in hastily improvised dormitories, in armories, warehouses, and schools. And through it all, they kept a sense of humor and of making the best of what they had. 
  •  And they got the job done, done faster than anyone who had seen the devastation could believe. Within a week, the worst was over; probably, the fastest widespread telephone restoration job on record. 
  •  Well, Carla has gone; Carla and her savage train of tornado handmaidens. She caused tremendous damage, dealt staggering blows to thousands of people. Yet, she also brought forth a remarkable display of human courage, of teamwork, of willingness to work helping others even when one's own loss had been heavy. Had it not been for the spirit, Carla's blows would have been felt far more keenly. 
  •  The telephone company is grateful that it was able to do its part in helping to lessen the blows. But above all, it is proud of the part played by telephone people, proud, but at the same time, humble. 
  •  Scenes of destruction from Hurricane Carla 
  •  Tornado destruction trailing Carla 
  •  Southwestern Bell’s role during the hurricane and recovery 
  •  Laying of underground telephone cable 
  •  Southwestern Bell buildings and infrastructure that survived the hurricane 
  •  Central Command Center in Houston for Southwestern Bell 
  •  Other states telephone companies assisting in restoring service 
  •  Trucks from other telephone companies assisting 
  •  Repairmen and operators assisting in restoration and relief 
  •  Citizens and police officers using telephone company buildings 
  •  Supplies organized and delivered by Western Electric 
  •  Restoring and repairing telephone lines and poles 
  •  Conclusion of restoration work undertaken by Southwestern Bell 
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Produced by the Southwestern Bell Telephone Company, this industrial film captures the company’s relief and service restoration efforts following Hurricane Carla in 1961. Scenes featured are Southwestern Bell workers from all across the United States providing assistance to residents, including infrastructure repair, community support for police and fire stations, and how well-designed infrastructure reduced the damage and death toll from the hurricane. Transcribed by Adept Word Management™, Inc.
Carla is the second most intense hurricane to ever hit the Texas coast (the most intense was the "Indianola" hurricane of 1886.) Though the storm made landfall between Port O'Connor and Port Lavaca, it was so large that the entire coast was affected; over half a million residents were evacuated, and damage was reported as far inland as Dallas. Carla caused $325 million (today $2.03 billion) in damage and killed 31 Texans.
An interesting note from the 1961 hurricane: then little known news anchor Dan Rather reported live during the storm from the Galveston seawall. It was the first live broadcast during a hurricane, later to become common practice in weather reporting.