Hurricane Alice, recorded by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration as “one for the record books” due to its unprecedented flooding along parts of Texas, prompted U.S. and Mexican officials to accelerate the construction of Amistad Dam, a massive concrete and steel structure sitting on the Rio Grande River, between the cities of Del Rio, Texas and Ciudad Acuña, Mexico. The dam was inaugurated on Sept. 8, 1960.
The tropical storm which would strengthen into Hurricane Alice, formed over the Bay of Campeche in the Gulf of Mexico on June 24, 1954, weather records show.
While moving northwest, Alice reached Category 1 hurricane status before making landfall in extreme northern Mexico the morning of June 25, the National Centers for Environmental Information states.
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 June 25, and eventually dissipated over southern Texas the next day.
The extreme rainfall caused by the storm system recorded over 27 inches according to the June 1954 Texas Climatological Data Publication showing post-storm “bucket survey” results. 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, according to NOAA.
“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,” an article published by the National Centers for Environmental Protection states.
Ozona, Texas was one of the places hardest hit, with a reported death toll of 15.
The water coming down Johnson Draw, a tributary to the Devils River, engulfed much of the town on June 28.
The Rio Grande River, receiving the runoff from the Pecos River, and the Devils River, crested well above flood stage, causing flooding in Del Rio and Acuña, but most of the damage was recorded down the stream in the border cities of Eagle Pass-Piedras Negras, and Laredo-Nuevo Laredo, Amistad National Recreation Area Interpretation and Resource Management Chief Greg Garetz said.
NOAA recorded the flood caused in Laredo by Hurricane Alice as a 1-in-2,000-year event, remaining 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 toll from the flooding ranges between 53 and 153, with 17 to 38 of those occurring in Texas, according to NOAA.
Construction of the dam
Four U.S. presidents starting with Dwight D. Eisenhower, who signed the treaty to build the dam with Mexican President Adolfo López Mateos in 1954, through John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, to Richard Nixon who dedicated the dam in 1969 alongside Mexican President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, were involved in the project.
“The dam was built by a consortium of private companies but the International Boundary and Water Commission was originally intended to run the dam,” Amistad National Recreation Area Interpretation and Resource Management Chief Greg Garetz said.
“After the flood in 1954 they started talking seriously about another dam for flood control it was an unusual hurricane that built up in the Gulf of Mexico really quickly, moved up the Rio Grande right up to the Del Rio area and then it stalled dumping its water over Langtry, Comstock, Pandale, area,” Garetz said.
The Devils River, which normally flows around 150 cubic feet per second, increased to 585,000 cfs at the Pafford Crossing gauging station during the 1954 flood. A similar flood took place in 1932, when the Devils River flowed at 597,000 cfs at the same location, Garetz said.
The Pecos River, which normally flows at 30 cubic feet per second, increased to 948,000 cfs at the Pecos Weir Dam gauging station, 14 miles up the Pecos River from the mouth, Garetz said.
“The Rio Grande came up to the bottom of the pictograph panel at Panther Cave, anecdotal stories said it rose about 50 feet in the canyons,” Garetz said.
What was unusual of Hurricane Alice is that it caused flood events on all three rivers simultaneously. Usually when there is flood it comes from the Devils River or it is coming down the Rio Grande or the Pecos, “or maybe two rivers, but in this case the hurricane caused flood events on all three rivers simultaneously,” Garetz said.
It was in 1957 when the National Park Service became involved in the project. The International Boundary and Water Commission had purchased the land and the park service was brought in for the creation of a national park, Garetz said.
Fred Bowers, a Del Rioan who was part of the construction project from the early stages, recalls his involvement as a surveyor and carpenter, and how he saw the structure going up from the ground.
Bowers was employed by the International Boundary and Water Commission, and then he went on to work for one of the contractors.
“When Perini moved in they hired two of us, Mark Essry, of Del Rio, and me,” Bowers said.
“There were four contractors, it was Perini, Benell, Jones and Level, the project was supposed to cost $73 million,” Bowers said.
Records show the total cost of the project went up to $78 million.
Bowers said the construction started with just two trailer houses moving in, a couple of rented cars, some surveying equipment and a bulldozer.
Bowers recalls the welders running their welding machines with a lead connected to the steel structure, so they only had to carry one lead to work in the whole project site.
“They had one lead going into the rebar, they only needed one lead to weld in the whole dam. The welder was so hot they could cut the rebar with the lead,” Bowers said.
Bowers also recalls the constant flow of dump trucks carrying the cement and dumping it into the project.
“The concrete was dumped by trucks, it was supposed to take about 50 years to completely set, so it’s about time for that cement to completely cure,” he said.
Fences, barns, dams and different types of structures including several power plants went underwater when Lake Amistad was filled, after the gates were closed in 1968.
“There was a big ranch in the Castle Canyon area, the ranch house is in the confluence of Evans Creek and California Creek,” Amistad National Recreation Area Interpretation and Resource Management Chief Greg Garetz said.
Although there is not much left of the structure, the walls were actually exposed recently, between 2012-2013, when the lake was low, Garetz said.
On the Devils River, near buoys F or G there was a windmill, the top of the windmill was also exposed, he said.
The lake is also home to three hydroelectric plants built by Central Power and Light between 1928 and 1932, the three powerhouses are all located on the Devils River.
The old steam plant is about half-mile up from the mouth of the Devils River, located near the outside of the Southwinds Marina harbor.
The Devils Lake Dam is on the Devils River, about one-quarter of a mile downstream from the Rough Canyon boat ramp.
The Lake Walk Dam is on the Devils River and is about four miles downstream from the Devils Lake Dam, in the vicinity of the current Devils River “I” mid-channel buoy, Garetz said.
A walkway to the powerhouse near Rough Canyon was exposed in 2013, and people were walking on it using it as a fishing platform, Garetz said.
“The top of the dam itself was only 12 feet below the surface at the lowest point, when we reached that record low in 2013,” Garetz said.
A powerhouse on the Pecos River is underwater at the railroad bridge, it was used to pump water up to a water tank for steam engines, Garetz said.
The National Park Service did not have any restrictions for scuba divers to dive in these structures, until a scuba diver died inside one of the powerhouses in 1982, Garetz said. However, those restrictions were lifted four years ago, he said.
“The diver went inside, there was a lot of silt and he couldn’t find his way out … after that fatality the National Park Service closed the two dams to diving, now we changed that four years ago, but we recommend divers to be careful because it is basically a cave dive,” he said.
Amistad Dam itself is closed to diving, the land transferred to the National Park Service in 1990, but the International Water and Boundary Commission retained 1,000 feet in front of the dam, and 1,500 feet behind the dam, Garetz said.
The original management plan lays out hiking trails, parking lots, where the boat rams would be, the camp grounds, hunt areas, etc. “They were originally planning a golf course and swimming pool at Diablo East,” Garetz said. The golf course and the swimming pool never materialized.
According to the memorandum of agreement, the International Boundary and Water Commission owned the land while the state of Texas owns the water. The International Boundary and Water Commission operates the dam in conjunction with the Texas Water Commission, Garetz said.