5 Worst Calamities in New Orleans History
It is in the nature of political conventions for the party out of the White House to try and convince us that we are at the most dangerous crossroads ever, while the party on the inside wants us to know how brightly the sun shines. Even with the tumultuous events of the last few weeks, people who see the world in a downwards spiral don’t have much recollections of the past. Life is very good compared to the 1940s, when young men faced the prospect of being drafted to go fight in a distant war from which they might not return. In Europe, millions of Jews were rounded up and herded to death camps. We can all sleep tonight confident that Canada will not send explosive V-2 rockets to our cities; the people in England had no such assurance about the Germans. In a world in which folks were scarified to war on remote Pacific Islands, there was little emotional relief, not even for the people living comfortably back home who dreaded receiving a telegram from the war department,
We live in good times. The difference now is that we hear about the bad so quickly and so visually, as practically anyone carries with them the capacity to send images around the world—instantly.
Every place has had its bad moments; New Orleans, despite its innate joy, has had many. While we fully appreciate all that is good about the city here is my list of the worst disasters in its history.
5. UNION OCCUPATION AND RECONSTRUCTION. It could have been worse. We could have been Atlanta. That New Orleans was spared the torch may have been because the city surrendered easily. Had Abraham Lincoln, who had high hopes for Louisiana (among all the rebellious states) peacefully re-entering the union, not been assassinated the process would have been smoother. 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 agriculture economy was in ruins. New Orleans may have slipped badly in comparison to other cities except that 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 small weakened nation subject to subsequent 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. Crushed Grand Isle and then leveling destruction, as a Category 3 hurricane, on eastern New Orleans, Gentilly and St. Bernard parish. The 1965 hurricane was, at the time, the costliest hurricane 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 its 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 existing city. The fire in 1788 destroyed over 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 on the way from the previous fire, another blaze leveled 212 Vieux Carre buildings, many more valuable than those lost in the previous fire. That year the city had also suffered through two hurricanes. Building techniques (more reliance or bricks instead of cypress) would change. The city was rebuilt, but began to look 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 if 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 C.C. Claiborne lost his wife, daughter, private secretary and co-workers to the yellow fever.
Smallpox was the worst. During the 20-year period from 1863 to 1882 there were, according to state estimates, 6,450 deaths due to the disease just in New Orleans. The era of infectious disease outbreaks lasted until 1914. Finally, 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.
May we not only continue to live in peace, but to also be able to recognize peace when it exists?
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s new book, “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), has been released. It is now available at local bookstores and at book web sites.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 11:30 P.M. WYES-TV, CH. 12.