For many of us, the city of Alvin is connected to two reigns, both involving its most famous son, Nolan Ryan. During his 27-year pitching career in major-league baseball, Ryan was a flame-throwing right-hander who was still hurling the ball more than 100 mph into his 40s. Ryan holds the records for career strikeouts (5,714) and no-hitters (7), and his feats still invari-ably eclipse Alvin’s third reign—a record-breaking rain.
In late July 1979, Tropical Storm Claudette made landfall in Texas and dumped a U.S.-record 43 inches of rain on Alvin in a 24-hour period, according to the National Weather Service. More than 6,000 residents of the Brazoria County town were forced to leave their homes, and half of them had to be rescued.
It rained most of the day July 25, but around 9 p.m., the downpour became a bona fide deluge, the force of the precipitation like water streaming out of a water hose nozzle set on “jet.” As the rainfall intensified, Alvin resident Richard Klapper remembers, he and his family noticed a few leaks. They put down containers and brought in their dogs. The Klappers considered the rain heavy, but they had experienced heavy rain before.
They had no sense of what was to come, but their dogs must have. When the Klappers turned in for the evening, the dogs hid under their bed. At around 2 a.m., one of the dogs jumped up on the bed and woke Richard. He nudged it back down to the floor, but it didn’t land with the patter of paws; it landed with a splash. Richard turned on his bedside lamp and realized their entire bedroom was flooded.
Richard assumed a pipe had burst in the house but quickly realized his mistake. The water on his floor was about 10 inches deep and approaching the height of his electrical outlets, so he made his way to his electrical panel and shut off the main breaker. As the water level in the house rose, the Klapper family climbed out a window. “It came down in buckets,” Richard Klapper says, “and we had no idea how high it would rise.”
The Klappers took their pets and made their way down the street to the two-story residence of neighbors. The neighbors sheltered the Klappers and another family on the second floor of their home. They watched recovery efforts from the house’s balcony.
The flood conditions lasted for several days. Many residents with one-story homes fled to their attics or took shelter in schools and businesses on higher ground. The National Guard was called in and worked around the clock with other emergency personnel, some logging as many as 57 hours straight.
The floodwaters were so high in some places that roadways were hidden and workers had to stand in moving currents to demarcate streets for emergency vehicles. In one instance, a 2½-ton truck washed away, scattering the human pylons and truck crew. The workers survived, but the truck disappeared in the torrent and wasn’t recovered for days.
Jim Siptak was away on his honeymoon when Alvin flooded, and he heard the news from his mother-in-law. “When we got back, there was still a foot and a half of water in our house,” Siptak says, “but our neighbors had removed the furniture and rugs and everything. We had all the Sheetrock removed from our house from one end to the other because the water got into the insulation. It was a trying time, especially after a honeymoon.”
Tropical Storm Claudette caused one death in Texas, according to the Houston Chronicle. Residents of Alvin, including the Klappers and Siptaks, slowly dried out, unaware that the flooding rain would begin a long reign. The U.S. record for the largest rainfall amount in a 24-hour period—43 inches in Alvin, July 25–26, 1979—has stood for 36 years. The world record for the largest rainfall amount in a 24-hour period is 72 inches on La Reunion Island (east of Madagascar), January 7–8, 1966.
In one day, the folks in Alvin received more rainfall than Austin, Dallas or San Antonio receives on average for an entire year and more than El Paso or Presidio usually collects in four years. The national record that Alvin broke belonged to another Texas town, according to Texas A&M University’s John W. Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist. “Texas holds the record for the second-place rainfall event, as well,” Nielsen-Gammon says. “In September of 1921, the town of Thrall recorded 38.2 inches of rain in a 24-hour period.”
E.R. Bills is a writer from Aledo.