The Evil Wind: Hurricanes in South Louisiana

Front Panel

Hurricanes have played a major role in the history of the Crescent City. They are part of our legend and, at the same time, part of our reality--a familiar threat that we brace ourselves for each hurricane season. New Orleans has stood up against this threat from its earliest times. Hurricanes struck the city in September of 1722 and 1723, as the early citizens of New Orleans struggled to establish themselves in the swampy crescent of the Mississippi River, each time almost completely destroying the city's existing structures. Yet New Orleans survived these early storms and many others among the 150-odd known hurricanes and tropical storms that have struck or threatened the Louisiana coast during the period of recorded history. Over the years, the people of New Orleans have learned to accept the inevitability of hurricanes, to recognize their city's vulnerability, and to show a healthy respect for the power and capriciousness of the evil winds.

"The Evil Wind" draws upon material in the City Archives Collection, the Louisiana Division book and newspaper collections, and the Louisiana Photograph Collection to illustrate the effect that hurricanes have had on the City of New Orleans and the surrounding region throughout history. It looks first at several 17th- and 18th-century storms and then more closely at storms of the current century, focusing specifically on the two terrible storms that will mark anniversaries in 1995: the great unnamed storm of 1915, now almost faded from the city's memory, and Hurricane Betsy of 1965, still stamped indelibly in the minds of New Orleanians who lived through it. Also on display are samples of materials on flood and hurricane protection housed in the Louisiana Division. The material here cannot hope to tell the whole story of the role that storms have played in the life of the city. For those who want to "read more about it," a wealth of material is available in the Louisiana Division, particularly in the detailed reports of Gulf storms prepared by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

This exhibit was designed and mounted by Wayne Everard and Irene Wainwright, the Louisiana Division's City Archives staff, who extend thanks to Robert Baxter and Charles Delong of the Library's Duplications Division and to Ridgways, Inc. for reprographic services.

Front page of the Daily Picayune for October 5, 1893, chronicling early reports of the hurricane which destroyed Cheniere Caminada and devastated Grand Isle. Nearly 2000 people lost their lives in this story; New Orleans escaped with relatively minor damage.

One of the most famous photographs taken in the aftermath of Hurricane Betsy -- Flood St., east of the Industrial Canal, September 11, 1965, two days after Betsy struck New Orleans. Note the dog stranded on the roof.

Regional Planning Commission map illustrating the paths of hurricanes that threatened the Central Gulf Coast between 1831-1979.

Samples of pamphlets and other publications on hurricane and flood protection. Additional pamphlets are on display in this exhibit, and other titles are available in the Louisiana Division's Flood Protection Collection.

A page from the Louisiana Atlas of Flood Plains and Flooding Problems, 1983 illustrating flood-prone areas in the New Orleans area, which are particularly vulnerable during hurricanes.

Main Exhibit

Entry from the "Acts and Deliberations of the Cabildo" for June 8, 1781, at which time that body received word of the Spanish King's response to news of the hurricane that had struck the province in August 1780. A later translation reads, in part, "His Majesty has suffered with fatherly love the terrible blow, which caused so much destruction among his loved subjects..." We have few details of this storm and its effect on New Orleans. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in its 1972 History of Hurricane Occurrences along Coastal Louisiana, describes it as follows:

Struck New Orleans and swept over the province of Louisiana, destroying buildings and crops, and sinking every vessel and boat afloat in the vicinity on the Mississippi River.

The hurricane of 1831 also destroyed many of the vessels in the New Orleans area as well as damaging many of the buildings in the city. Mayor Denis Prieur's letter to the Conseil de Ville describes some of the destruction. The map of Milneburgh indicates the section of that lakefront resort that was inundated by the storm.

Rainfall associated with the 1877 hurricane amounted to over 6 3/4 inches according to the city's rain gauge at the Magnolia Bridge on Bayou St. John.

The 2.3 inches of rain recorded over a three hour period at City Hall during the August 16, 1895 storm did not rank as the most intense rainfall of that year. Nor is it uncommon for the Crescent City to experience more precipitation during one of its regular spring thunderstorms than during its wettest hurricanes. The May 8-9, 1995 rainfall of over 15 inches in less than twenty-four hours is but our most recent reminder of this phenomenon.

George Francois Mugnier's photograph of the wrecked steamer "Joe Webre" on Grand Isle provides a glimpse of the destruction left in the wake of the killer Cheniere Caminada storm of 1893. Note that the wreck sits atop the railroad tracks, quite a distance from the shore.

A list of the victims of the 1893 hurricane as published in a contemporary account, Cheniere Caminada, or the Wind of Death by Rose C. Falls (1893)..

Another Mugnier image of damage to Grand Isle by the 1893 storm. This photograph shows the ruins of the Ocean Club Hotel.

The great Isle Derniere (Last Island) storm of 1856, which killed 320 people at that Gulf resort, was memorialized by Lafcadio Hearn in his fictional account, Chita. This first edition of the work once belonged to the renowned New Orleans surgeon, Dr. Rudolph Matas.

Examples of advertising leaflets for meteorological instruments in common use during the late 19th century.

The overwhelming impact of the September 29, 1915 storm on the city of New Orleans is well displayed by the front page of the Times-Picayune on the following morning.

Mayor Martin Behrman's brief report to the City Council on the 1915 event includes sentiments that no doubt have been expressed many times during the 277 year history of the Crescent City.

The Mayor's hoped-for loan to pay for the rehabilitation of public property damaged by the 1915 storm was quickly realized as several of the city's key economic powers committed to share the burden.

Though undated, this Alexander Allison photo of the flooded river batture very likely was a common New Orleans sight in 1915 and in other years of hurricane and other flood disaster.

The 1915 hurricane left 275 dead in its wake along the Gulf Coast. Eight of the New Orleans victims are recorded on just one page of the Orleans Parish Coroner's Record Book Journal for 1915.

Numerous church buildings suffered from the assault of September 29, 1915. Among them was St. Anna's Episcopal on Esplanade Ave., shown here in an enlargement made from the October 1 edition of the Times-Picayune. The architect's report on the damage to the building suggests that the church proper was salvageable--indeed it was renovated and reopened for services in 1916. A new church, built in 1952, stands on the site today.

The Sewerage and Water Board's special report on the 1915 hurricane documents much of the damage suffered by the city and recounts the Board's efforts to combat the storm and its attendant rainfall. On page 17 of this report the Board noted:

The fact that a single 15-day period has given two rainfalls of over 7 inches, and a third of over 4 1/2 inches ... only renders the more remote the probability of a repetition of any of these things in the early future ... there is no reason why this city and its surrounding country should not continue, even more successfully than heretofore, the developments in all directions which have been so well advanced and which for the most part have been but little injured.

Over 25,000 New Orleans buildings suffered structural damage during the 1915 storm. Much of this destruction is documented in a series of letters such as this one received by the City Engineer's Office in the weeks following September 29.

Among the municipal buildings destroyed in 1915 were three fire houses, all of which were replaced in the years following the disaster. One of the three, at 231 South Broad, was built in 1917 and is pictured here as it appeared in 1933. The structure is now being used as a satellite prison by the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff's Office.

One of nineteenth century New Orleans' most famous and most important buildings, James Gallier's French Opera House, was so severely damaged by the 1915 storm that the Opera Association was forced into receivership, as evidenced by the court record of which this document is a part. The Opera House is pictured here in a photo taken by Charles L. Franck sometime between the storm and the 1919 fire that sealed the building's fate forever. Today the Bourbon and Toulouse site of the old building is occupied by the Best Western Inn on Bourbon Street.

With many of its structures already over a century old in 1915, the Vieux Carre was especially vulnerable to the September 29 storm. An example was the row at 416-422 Chartres Street. Built as three separate stores in 1834, all suffered severe damage in 1915, as documented in this communication. One of the three, at 416-418, was replaced in 1917 by a new building which now houses K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen.

A particularly interesting "hurricane story" surrounds the old Dryades Street Library at 1924 St. Philip Street. Originally scheduled for formal dedication on October 6, 1915, the building suffered considerable damage on September 29. Fortunately, the contractors were able to make the necessary repairs quickly enough that the opening was postponed for one week only. The Dryades branch, designed to serve as the sole library facility for the city's African-American community, remained in use for just short of fifty years until it was severely damaged by Hurricane Betsy. Today the old building is owned by the Dryades Street YMCA which recently managed to renovate the structure and reopen it for use in "Y" programs.

Back-to-back storms in 1947 and 1948 were especially damaging to Jefferson Parish then just beginning to experience its post-war boom in residential construction. These photographs by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers illustrate conditions in 1947 (above) and 1948 (right).

Hurricane Audrey struck the coast of western Louisiana on June 27, 1957. By the time it had passed, 556 people were dead, many because of their failure to evacuate low-lying areas of Cameron Parish. New Orleans officials kept close watch on Audrey's progress and, fortunately, the city was spared the storm's wrath. Mayor Chep Morrison was among many New Orleanians to send clothing or other assistance to Audrey's victims. Hurricane Audrey taught all of us a severe but needed lesson: you can never do too much to prepare for a killer hurricane!

Hurricane Hilda in 1964 had minimal effect on the Crescent City proper (most of its damage was inflicted on the Lafourche country). The two items above document in part the local experience during Hilda; the photograph below illustrates damage suffered by several fishing camps along the eastern shore of Lake Pontchartrain.

Newsweek magazine ran this photo of a collapsed building in the Vieux Carre along with a suggestion that Mayor Victor Schiro had hidden from the storm in a Civil Defense shelter. The latter charge created a mini-controversy of sorts as several New Orleanians wrote letters to the editor demanding a retraction.

Just short of fifty years after the great storm of 1915 New Orleans was visited by the most devastating hurricane to hit the Louisiana coast in this century-Betsy! This photograph, showing damage on Canal Street, is reproduced from one of several U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reports on the 1965 storm.

Taped store fronts and picture windows have been a familiar New Orleans hurricane sight at least since Betsy. Unfortunately, however, masking tape does nothing to protect against rising tides and storm surges, the real culprits of 1965.

Thousands of New Orleanians were at least temporarily displaced by Betsy and forced to seek refuge in one of several public shelters. This report from the Mayor's Office gives some idea of the numbers involved.

The east side of the Industrial Canal between Florida Avenue and St. Claude Street was completely flooded after Betsy's passage. This view, from a Corps of Engineers report, shows the St. Claude bridge as an island from which numerous rescue missions were launched.

Betsy struck in the midst of the 1965 campaign for the Mayor's Office. Mayor Schiro's chief rival for reelection, Councilman-at-Large Jimmy Fitzmorris, was quick to realize that the hurricane emergency was more important than the politics of the day.

This New Orleans Police Department release conveys a sense of the terror that gripped the Lower Ninth Ward community immediately following Betsy.

More Corps of Engineers images showing the extent of flooding in the Crescent City as a result of Hurricane Betsy.

The Shreveport Times caught the tragedy of Betsy in this pictorial spread showing damage in New Orleans and adjacent areas of southeastern Louisiana.

Mayor Schiro, Police Superintendent Joseph Giarrusso, and others embarking on a tour of the flooded area in an amphibious vehicle. Schiro was highly visible during the emergency, but is unfairly remembered for his remark to the effect that citizens should not believe any false rumors unless they came from him!

The Judge Seeber Bridge over the Industrial Canal appears to end in another stream that is, in fact, North Claiborne Avenue. Note the Corps of Engineers dredge pumping water from the land side into the canal (just to the right of the bridge).

Health Director Rodney Jung's report on conditions in the flooded Lower Ninth Ward provides a vivid description of the horrible suffering experienced by residents a full six days after Betsy's passage through the city.

Amphibious vehicles and/or helicopters would have been only too welcome by residents such as these, trapped on their rooftops by the rapidly rising flood waters.

Betsy was an international story as shown by this clipping taken from Rome's Il Messaggero newspaper.

Old Fire Department engines were called into service to provide additional pumping capacity in the hard-fought effort to clear the streets of flood waters. This photo was taken at Downman Road and the Dwyer Canal in eastern New Orleans.

More photographic evidence of Betsy's awesome strength.

McDonogh #35 Senior High School on Rampart Street was severely damaged by Hurricane Betsy; it did not reopen at that site. The school found temporary quarters in the old U.S. Post Office building on Lafayette Square (now the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals) and later in an old elementary school. Its new facility in the Seventh Ward opened in 1972.

Reports of the Salvation Army and the U.S. Public Health Service document the massive jobs done by those two agencies throughout the Betsy emergency. Numerous other agencies played similar roles in getting the Crescent City back on its feet.

One of those other agencies was the FBI, which assisted the Orleans Parish Coroner's Office in the grim task of identifying the remains of Betsy's ultimate victims.

President Lyndon Johnson toured the hurricane-stricken city with Mayor Schiro and other officials. Johnson ordered massive federal assistance in the cleanup and rehabilitation of the New Orleans area.

The "Genevieve Lykes," partially submerged in the Mississippi River. The ship actually is lying atop another sunken Lykes vessel!

A post-Betsy view of Bourbon Street between Bienville and Conti, former site of the American Brewery (home of Regal beer). The old brewery buildings had been demolished in 1964 and the property surrounded by a high wooden fence. Betsy blew the fence down. Today, the Royal Sonesta Hotel occupies the site.

This letter recounts the contribution of but one of the many private citizens of New Orleans who pitched in to help others during the Betsy emergency.

Positive responses to requests for disaster assistance came from around the world.

The continuing impact of Hurricane Betsy--months after the storm itself had long been silenced--is suggested by these two advertisements.

Hurricane Camille, one of the most intense hurricanes on record, hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast just before midnight on August 17, 1969 with sustained winds of 160 mph and gusts of more than 200 mph. For New Orleans, the storm was a narrow and terrifying near miss. Although Camille did extensive damage to parts of the North Shore and Plaquemines Parish, the city itself was largely spared the massive devastation suffered by the towns of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. One hundred and thirty-seven people lost their lives in Camille, and the hurricane caused over one-half billion dollars worth of damage. Grateful to have been spared and remembering vividly the aftermath of Betsy, only 4 years before, New Orleanians responded generously to their neighbors in Louisiana and Mississippi, sending money and other forms of aid to the victims of Camille.

This letter details contributions made to the Louisiana Disaster Fund, established to assist the victims of Hurricane Camille.

This letter from Dave Dixon, then head of the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District, accompanied a donation to the city's efforts to aid residents of the Gulf Coast and illustrates the sentiments that prompted many other New Orleanians to send similar contributions.

Another letter offering aid, this one from Connie Kay (who, coincidentally, followed Mercedes, the "New Orleans Hurricane,"--see below--at the piano bar of Pat O'Brien's).

Satellite photo of Camille as it approached the Gulf Coast, taken at 7:57 pm on August 17, printed in the Mobile District Corps of Engineers' 1970 report on the storm. The photo illustrates clearly how narrowly New Orleans escaped the fate of the Gulf Coast and reminds us vividly of the anxiety that New Orleanians experienced that night as they waited for Camille to choose her path.

This photograph from a Corps of Engineers report shows the serious flooding experienced by a neighborhood in the Lower Ninth Ward after part of the Industrial Canal levee gave way unexpectedly several hours after Camille turned inland.

More examples from the Louisiana Division's Flood Protection Collection. Ask at the Louisiana Reference desk for access to the Collection.

Despite the fact that New Orleans are all too familiar with the death and destruction that accompany hurricanes, we seem to harbor a strange fascination with the storms, a fascination that may explain our tendency to celebrate the hurricane in our restaurants, lounge performers, favorite alcoholic beverages, and other aspects of the local popular culture.

The INTERNET is beginning to have an impact on the study of hurricane. We downloaded this satellite image of Hurricane Andrew as it struck the Florida coast from the National Weather Service's page on the World Wide Web [http://nhc-hp3.nhc.noaa.gov]. Ridgway's, Inc. printed the downloaded file [andy2.gif] using a NCAD Novajet III plotter to produce the hard copy. The NHC's webserver includes a wealth of information on hurricanes, including forecasts, advisories, lists of hurricane names, and links to charts showing the tracks followed by storms in previous years.