Mar 23, 200911:52 AM
The Editor's Room
Weekly Commentary with New Orleans Magazine’s Errol Laborde
Errol Laborde: 5 Worst Calamities in New Orleans History
We are now in the first full week of spring, a time that symbolically represents a renewal after the dead of winter. Though there is not much of a weather change in New Orleans, local history has certainly had its climatic shifts. Most of the time, and for most of its existence, New Orleans has been a great place to live. But, like any place, we’ve had our share of some bad times, too. Here are my picks of the worst.
5.UNION OCCUPATION/ RECONSTRUCTION. It could have been worse. We could have been Atlanta. That New Orleans was spared the torch may have been due to the city surrendering easily. Nevertheless, the period from 1862 to 1877, when Reconstruction ended, was one of political upheaval and violence, frequently under the direction of rogues and thugs. The state's agricultural economy was in ruins. In comparison to other cities, New Orleans slipped up badly, although the rest of the south was equally unstable. (One good result: The Union won. Had it not, New Orleans would have likely been the capital of a smaller weak nation, subject to conquering and denied the largesse of United States support and funding.)
4. HURRICANE BETSY. After pushing across the Bahamas and a swath of Florida, Betsy entered the gulf and then turned toward the mouth of the Mississippi. Grand Isle was crushed, and the Category 3 hurricane leveled destruction on eastern New Orleans, Gentilly and St. Bernard parish. At the time, the 1965 storm was the costliest ever, and came to be known as "Billion Dollar Betsy". In its second landfall, the storm flooded approximately 164,000 homes. There were 76 fatalities. The rest of New Orleans was left able to operate. As a result of the storm, the Corps of Engineers started the Hurricane Protection Program, and began rebuilding levees in New Orleans that were to be higher and stronger.
3. THE GREAT FIRES. Only six years apart, these two fires combined to level most of the French Quarter, which at the time comprised most of the city. The fire in 1788 destroyed more than 800 houses and public building within hours. (Spanish Governor Esteban Miro wrote to authorities about the "abject misery, crying and sobbing" of the people.) Then in 1794, with rebuilding still taking place from the previous fire, another blaze leveled 212 Vieux Carré buildings, many more valuable than those lost in the previous fire. That year the city also suffered through two hurricanes. Building techniques, such as being more reliant on bricks instead of cypress, would change. The city was rebuilt, but began to look much different.
2. HURRICANE KATRINA. We know the story, and it is continuing. New Orleans' history, Part II, from then on would be marked as beginning on August 29, 2005.
1. PESTILENCE. Katrina was terrible, but it you can read this at least you know the storm did not kill you. During the frequent outbreaks of infectious diseases, a person could be healthy one day and stricken the next. In 1804 Louisiana's first territorial governor, William V.C. Claiborne, lost his wife, daughter, private secretary and co-workers to yellow fever. The epidemic claimed the lives of thousands of residents.
The smallpox outbreak was even worse. During the 20-year period from 1863 to 1882 there were, according to state estimates, 6,450 deaths due to the disease in New Orleans. The era of infectious disease outbreaks lasted until 1914: in that year a hospital specializing in smallpox cases was closed for lack of business. Life in New Orleans seemed more secure. Between challenges, people could enjoy the good times again.