Houston — Hurricane Allen found something unusual -- a nearly empty Texas coastline -- when it roared onshore near Brownsville Aug. 10. Even the surfers who had taken advantage of the heavy waves 20 hours earlier were long gone.
Some Texans hope that the Texas coast never returns to "normal." Disaster preparedness experts, environmentalists, and some state officials think Hurricane Allen can best serve as a warning that coastal development in this state needs tighter controls to reduce the vulnerability of coastal residents to natural disasters.
Yet for the estimated 150,000 to 200,000 Texas coastal residents who evacuated their homes for higher ground, life cannot return to normal too quickly. "People are calm, but ready and anxious to go home," said Barbara Blunt, a volunteer at a Red Cross shelter in Corpus Christi.
(At press time, Allen's winds had dissipated substantially, but heavy rains of 8 to 10 inches and possible tornadoes were forecast by the National Hurricane Center though Aug. 11 as the eye of the storm moved north and inland into Texas. Moderate flooding was reported in southeast Texas and the National Guard was sent in.)
The Texas lower Rio Grande Valley, which received the brunt of the storm, has grown very briskly in the past five years. The once predominantly agricultural region now draws more than 1 million visitors each summer to nearby beaches.
Indeed, as Allen, the second-most-powerful hurricane in modern times, tracked its path across the Caribbean and into the Gulf of Mexico over the past week, the US Census Bureau released preliminary figures for some Texas coastal counties showing 20 to 30 percent population growth rates over the past decade.
Hurricane Allen raked directly across South Padre Island, one of the area's most popular resorts, but officials have not yet made an estimate of the damage. Oddly enough, the island's limited damage from hurricane Beulah in 1967 is one reason there has been a rush of development since then, according to David Allex of the Chamber of Commerce in nearby Harlingen, Texas.
State Sen. A. R. Schwartz has been a longtime advocate of more restrictions on coastal development in Texas. "We cannot control how mnay people want to live on the coast, but we can control where the development occurs," he said.
Mr. Schwartz asserts that building codes along the coast do not adequately protect structures from the severe weather they are subject to, and that commercial and residential construction in many areas is too concentrated for the available evacuation routes.
The greatest problems, he says, are in the unincorporated areas of the coast because county governments under Texas law do not have the power to pass local ordinances setting mandatory building code standards or planning and development regulations. Senator Schwartz has urged the adoption of a new state law giving counties this power.
One measure of the vulnerability of the Texas coast is the financial risk insurers attach to the area. Windstorm insurance coverage in coastal counties totals $1.8 billion -- the largest pool of windstorm coverage in the United States, according to state insurance officials.
Clint Dare, regional manager of the Texas Insurance Information Institute, says the risk is such that most insurers would not write policies on the coast if they were not required to under Texas law. Mr. Dare says one regrettable aspect of mandatory insurance is that many potential buyers take it as an assurance of building safety, while many insurers feel to the contrary that building codes are not stringent enough along the coast.
There is also movement in Congress to place more restrictions on federal flood insurance for buildings on barrier islands like South Padre Island that border the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.
"The islands have been overdeveloped, and with the help of federal financial assistance" in the form of insurance policies, federal funds for bridges, and permits for public works projects, asserts an aide to Sen. Dale Bumpers (D) of Arkansas. Senator Bumpers is sponsor of a bill to severely restrict federal flood insurance for new construction on the nation's 300 barrier islands.