Streetcar: 5 Worst Calamities in New Orleans History

At this point the pandemic is still a current, live tragedy, but before passing judgment we’ll wait until the incident is buffered by time. Besides, it is not just local, but global. Focusing instead on the regional disasters, here’s my list in ascending order, to date, of the worst.


5. 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. 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 crushing 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, though ultimately not strong enough.


3. THE GREAT FIRES. Only six years apart, these two fires combined leveled most of the French Quarter, which at the time comprised most of the existing city. The Easter week fire in 1788 destroyed over 800 houses and public buildings 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 Carré 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 on bricks instead of cypress) would change. The city was rebuilt, but began to look different.


2. HURRICANE KATRINA. We know the story, and it continues. New Orleans’ history, Part II, from then on would be marked as beginning on August 29, 2005. Though we suspect that now there will be a Part III dated March 2020.


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 V.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 the good times return, and may the celebrating be done during a hurricane-free summer.


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