Hurricane Allen, second strongest Atlantic hurricane of the century, stalled early this morning as it approached the southern Texas coast, but it continued to throw torrential rain, tornadoes and winds up to 150 mph at a region deserted by an estimated 200,000 people.
Forecasters warned that little change was expected in the storm's strength before it struck the coast. A tornado warning for southern Texas remained in effect through the night, and rainfall over southern Texas and northeastern Mexico through today was expected to range up to 15 to 20 inches.
"It's relaxing a little bit, but let's stress that 140 mph winds are still going to tear things up," said Richard Hagan, weather service supervisor here. "All hurricanes are different. Some charge right on in to the coast, and some dillydally around. We've got one that wants to play coy with us."
He said the center of the storm was expected to hit land sometime before dawn. Earlier, forecaster had said it would hit around 11 p.m. CDT Saturday.
Heavy rain and swollen tides ahead of the storm cut off most escape routes from offshore islands, but most beach areas, including Port Aransas, Port Isabel and South Padre Island, had already been completely evacuated.
There was some coastal flooding, and roofs were torn from some buildings at Los Fresnos, a coastal town about five miles away, according to ham radio reports monitored at Brownsville Airport, but no deaths or injuries had been reported in the area.
A disabled tanker loaded with nearly 12 million gallons of oil was driven aground Saturday by 40- to 50-foot waves off Corpus Christi after its uncontrolled drift threatened oil rigs. The Coast Guard was unable to rescue the crew of 37 but said they should be safe if the Liberian-registered Mary Ellen did not break up.
High tides rushed into the streets at Kemah and Seabrook along Galveston Bay, about 300 miles to the northeast, edging to the windows of some stalled cars and swirling into businesses and homes, officials said.There was little communication with other points along the coast.
Radar showed that Allen's center was remaining nearly stationary near latitude 25.7 north and longitude 96.7 west, or about 35 miles east southeast of Brownsville, the National Hurricane Center at Miami reported.
Saturday night, the wind was gusting up to 75 mph at this border city of 67,000 people. An oil rig 53 miles east of Brownsville recorded wind up to 140 mph late Saturday afternoon.
The storm's calm eye was surrounded by winds that by Saturday night had diminished to 150 mph from the 170 mph measured in the afternoon, hagan said.
The Hurricane Center said hurricane-force winds extended 100 miles to the north of the storm and 50 miles to the south.
"Right now, we're just playing the waiting game, waiting it out, fearing what is going to happen," said Louis Messer at the San Patricio County Sheriff's office just north of Corpus Christi.
The Hurricane Center said the highest surge on the beaches near Brownsville would probably be about 15 feet.
'If we get more than 12-foot tides, I don't even want to think about it," said Al Cisneros, general manager and port director for the Port of Brownsville. The docks at the port are 12 feet high, and seas above that height could damage loading facilities, he said.
"There are still some ships in the harbor. We have a couple of large ships, and the crews are going to stay aboard and ride it out there," he said.
Ham radio operator Cliff Wareham, barricaded in a church at Los Fresnos, reported he saw a mobile home tumbling past that looked like "a tornado did a little dance on it and turned it inside out."
A Saturday afternoon teletype message from the National Weather Service station here closed with: "No storm of this strength has struck this area in recorded history. We can offer only some ideas of what has happened in other areas in storms of similar strength. From now on, we must just endure. Many people have had to go through hurricanes and have survived.
"May God help us."
The storm had left a trail of death and despair through the tropical plantations of the Carribbean as it slowly worked its way up off the coast of Mexico.
It claimed at least 100 lives, including 87 in the Caribbean and 13 people aboard a helicopter evacuating oil rig personnel off Louisiana, and one person was dead and three were missing after a barge overturned near Lake Charles, La., Friday night.
Long before nighfall Saturday squallwinds up to 60 mph knocked out Brownsville's power and a tornado destroyed a bakery and five houses, and damaged several others.
"The city is without electricity gas and water," said Cameron County Deputy Sheriff Robert Tamayo.
Several other communities in the Rio Grand Valley also lost power, including Harlingen, 20 miles northwest of Brownsville.
Allen's initial inroads were made during the early morning hours Saturday. Rains began to fall before daybreak and came in waves along the coast from Corpus Christi southward to Brownsville and down the northeast Mexican shoreline.
Schools, factories, municipal buildings and churches were opened in Matamoros, Mexico, just across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, for those seeking refuge.
By late morning the winds made it difficult to walk in Brownsville and few people tried. Only emergency traffic moved, including fire trucks and ambulances that responded to a tornado that dipped down just before sunrise. No injuries were reported in the twister, one of several Saturday.
In Corpus Christi, 100 miles up the coast from Brownsville, more than 10,000 took refuge in community shelters. Across Corpus Christi Bay, the island town of Port Aransas -- a center for shrimp fishing and tourism -- was cut off from the mainland.
Windows on virtually every building near the coast in South Texas were boarded up, giving resort villages such as those along the Padre Island National Seashore a ghost-town look.
Coast Guard officers in Corpus Christi said the 840-foot Liberian-registered tanker, Mary Ellen, with a crew of mostly Chinese and Italians and loaded with 11.8 million gallons of oil, ran aground about 12 miles south of Port Aransas on Mustang Island. o
"It did miss all the [oil rig] platforms so hopefully, if the ship stays intact and it stays hard aground and the people can stay on board, they should be all right," said Coast Guard Lt. Steve Sparks.
The tanker was hauling oil from Corpus Christi to the American Petrofina Corp. in Port Aransas. Crewmen tried to outrun the storm, but were stalled by engine problems at sea, and two anchors failed to hold the ship in position until it ran aground.
Three attempts to rescue the crew and to tow the boat failed because of the heavy seas. A fourth attempt to rescue only the crew was aborted when the tug began taking on water.
"It's an extremely critical situation," said Sparks, "but unfortunately there's nothing we can do for them."
Rising tides cut off most escape routes from offshore islands and high water forced the closing of the Port Aransas ferry and U.S. Hwy. 181 from Corpus Christi to Portland on the middle-coast.
Gov. Bill Clements cut short a Colorado vacation and rushed back to Texas Saturday.
Allen was born July 29 as a mild disturbance and within two days had organized into the season's second tropical depression. It grew to a tropical storm Aug. 1 and into a hurricane Aug. 3.
Meteorologist Bob Riggio said Allen's intensity could be blamed on the warmer than normal temperatures in the Gulf.
"A hurricane is a low pressure system," he said. "It's a convergence of air that is lifting up warm water vapor. As it is lifted, this gaseous vapor condenses and gives off heat. That just adds to the energy of the system.More hot air causes the hurricane to swirl more and intensify."
With waters of the Gulf warmed by one of the hottest summers on record, the storm had plenty of fuel from which to grow.
Between Brownsville and Corpus Christi, in the desolate stretches of land known geologically as the Rio Grande Plain, lies the King Ranch -- largest in the country and a symbol of Texas' western heritage.
Officials of the ranch said they would do nothing to protect the cattle that roam the 826,000 acres.
"There's not much you can do for livestock," said John Cypher, a spokesman for the ranch in Kingsville, 50 miles inland from Corpus Christi. "They'll migrate to high ground on their own. The animals normally drift with the wind. If they've not right on the coast where they'll be caught by the tide they'll be all right. In the last hurricane 12 years ago we lost practically nothing."