SpaceX’s starship kicked up a cloud of dust, leaving Texans with a mess

When the most powerful rocket ever built exploded from the launch pad in Boca Chica, Texas, on Thursday, its ascent shook the earth and kicked up a billowing cloud of dust and debris, shaking homes and raining down brown dirt for miles.

In Port Isabel, a town about six miles to the northwest where at least one window was broken, residents were alarmed.

“It was really terrifying,” said Sharon Almaguer, who at the time of the launch was at home with her 80-year-old mother. During previous launches, Almaguer said she had experienced some shaking inside the brick house, but “this was on a whole different level.”[ads1];

Meanwhile, SpaceX’s starship exploded minutes after liftoff and before reaching orbit. Near the launch site, residents of Port Isabel, known for its towering lighthouse and less than 10 miles from the Mexican border, were left to deal with the mess.

Almost everywhere in town “ended up with a coating of a pretty thick, granular grain of sand that just landed on everything,” Valerie Bates, a Port Isabel spokeswoman, said in an interview. Photos posted on social media showed residents’ cars covered in brown debris.

A window shattered at a gym, owner Luis Alanis said. Mr. Alanis, who was at home at the time of the launch, said he felt “rumbling, kind of like a mini-earthquake.” He estimated the window would cost about $300 to fix.

Closer to the launch site, large leftovers was recorded flying through the air and smashing into an unoccupied car. Louis Balderas, the founder of LabPadre, which films SpaceX’s launches, said that while it was common to see some debris, smoke and dust, the impact of Thursday’s launch was unlike anything he had ever seen.

“There were pieces of concrete the size of bowling balls that came flying out of the launch pad area,” Balderas said. The explosion, he added, had created a crater that he estimated was about 25 feet deep.

In a statement posted on Facebook, the city of Port Isabel said the Cameron County Emergency Management Department had confirmed the dust “was sand and soil from near the SpaceX launch site that was lifted into the air by the force of the launch.” A spokeswoman for the county’s emergency department said all questions regarding the dust from the explosion should be directed to SpaceX.

On Thursday, Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. ordered the closure of Boca Chica Beach and a portion of State Highway 4 until 2 p.m. Friday “to protect public health and safety during anomaly cleanup efforts.”

Mrs. Bates, the Port Isabel spokeswoman, said based on current information, there was no “immediate concern for public health.”

Eric Roesch, an environmental compliance and risk assessment expert who has tracked SpaceX’s rocket launches, said in an interview that he and others had long warned about the environmental risks to the surrounding region. But without a chemical analysis of the dust and debris, he added, it was difficult to say whether or not they were harmful to human health.

But, Mr. Roesch said, “the presence of that dust indicates to me that the impact modeling was inadequate, because this was not really revealed as a possible impact.” In June, an environmental assessment by the Federal Aviation Administration concluded that SpaceX’s plans for orbital launches would have “no significant impact” on the Gulf Coast region.

Roesch, who runs the environmental policy blog ESG Hound, said he believed the dust and debris largely came from a giant crater formed during the rocket’s liftoff. Normally, large launch sites are constructed with a ditch or water system to help guide the rocket’s flame away from the ground and to cushion the impact, he said.

“They didn’t,” he said. “Looks like they just went ahead and launched this thing.”

Neither SpaceX nor the FAA immediately responded to questions about the dust and debris Thursday night.

Almaguer, the Port Isabel resident, said that while Elon Musk’s venture had brought jobs to an economically struggling region, the brown muck covering her town was a reminder of the environmental downside and a sign that things had gotten out of hand. “The local people here are just being victimized,” she said.

“He just wanted to get this thing up in the air,” Almaguer said of Mr. Musk. “Everyone else is kind of damned.”

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