This Month in Climate History: Hurricane Alice, June 1954
While Hurricane Alice caused some damage due to its one-minute sustained winds of approximately 80 mph at landfall, the storm’s unprecedented flooding along the Rio Grande Valley in June 1954 made Alice one for the record books.
The tropical storm, which would strengthen into Hurricane Alice, formed over the Bay of Campeche in the Gulf of Mexico on June 24, 1954. While moving northwest, Alice reached Category 1 hurricane status before making landfall in extreme northern Mexico the morning of June 25. The hurricane maintained its intensity as it progressed inland between Texas and Mexico, approximately paralleling the Rio Grande. A weakened Alice passed over Laredo, Texas, late on the 25th and eventually dissipated over southern Texas the next day.
Hurricane Alice’s extreme rainfall over the inland areas of south Texas and northeastern Mexico caused the bulk of the damage. A three-year-long drought in the region worsened the flooding by causing the soil to be especially vulnerable to erosion. The June 1954 Texas Climatological Data Publication shows post-storm “bucket survey” results exceeding 27 inches in a few cases. However, the highest total occurring at an official reporting station was 24.07 inches near Pandale, Texas, of which 16.02 inches fell in a 24-hour period.
The peak rainfall took place in a small area centered near the Pecos River, with some areas receiving more rain in a few days from Hurricane Alice’s remnants than they average in a year. The heavy rains caused deadly flash flooding. Ozona, Texas, was particularly hard hit, sustaining damages of $2 million (1954 USD) and with 15 deaths reported. “A wall of water,” approaching 30 feet in height, poured out of Johnson Draw, a tributary to Devil’s River, early June 28, engulfing much of the town. The floodwaters led about a third of Ozona’s residents to evacuate and rendered hundreds of the town’s families homeless. Elsewhere in the region, the intense flooding washed out a highway and three railroad bridges, stranding several trains. Helicopters had to rescue several passengers onboard one Southern Pacific Train. The International Boundary and Water Commission remarked that it was "probably the greatest rate of runoff for a watershed of [that] size in the United States.”
The Rio Grande crested well above flood stage, causing major flooding and heavy losses at Eagle Pass, Texas, and its sister city, Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico. Unlike Eagle Pass, the citizens of Piedras Negras did not evacuate. This decision proved to be deadly when the dike designed to protect the Mexican city failed. At least 38 people in the city lost their lives.
Further downstream and back on the U.S. side of the river, at Laredo, Texas, forecasters predicted only moderate flooding before the heaviest rain fell. Instead, the river rose to just over 61 feet, its second highest crest ever recorded. The city was without fresh water for days as the flooding caused the water treatment plant to fail. Considered a 1-in-2,000-year event, the flooding of the Rio Grande at Laredo due to Hurricane Alice remains the second highest level ever recorded, only behind the flood of 1865 when the river peaked at over 62 feet.
Due to some victims remaining unaccounted for, the death total from Hurricane Alice’s flooding ranges between 53 and 153, with 17 to 38 of those occurring in Texas. The fatal flooding along the Rio Grande accelerated the Amistad Dam project, a series of flood control dams, designed to limit similar catastrophes in the future.
For more information on Hurricane Alice, see