Category 4 catastrophe: Remembering the unnamed hurricane of 1915
A unnamed hurricane packing 120-mph winds slammed into the Gulf Coast on Sept. 29, 1915, killing 300 people in Louisiana and Mississippi, including 21 in New Orleans. It destroyed 25,000 buildings, inflicted damage totaling $13 million (the equivalent of nearly $320 million today) and had a storm surge estimated at 12 feet. The wind blew off the cupola of the Presbytère overlooking Jackson Square, and the clock on the neighboring St. Louis Cathedral stopped at 5:50 p.m., at the height of the storm. Train service was canceled, and electricity was knocked out for two days. The lead headline on the evening’s Item, in big capital letters, read “City Cut Off From Rest of World.”
In the years since the unnamed storm struck, communication and forecasting have improved markedly, and $14.5 billion was spent on a pumping system to prevent a recurrence of the flooding that happened in August 2005 when the levees failed during Hurricane Katrina’s onslaught. But, as this past summer’s flooding in New Orleans showed, drainage is still a problem — and, as recent killer hurricanes in Texas and Florida showed, no community is safe from nature’s fury.
- The hurricane, which came along before storms had names, took out 11 steeples and destroyed most of First Presbyterian Church on Lafayette Square. On the other side of the square, the storm heavily damaged The Times-Picayune building.
- Another casualty was Horticultural Hall, which had been built in Audubon Park for the 1884 World Cotton Centennial Exposition. Insurance money was used to build an aviary, which became the genesis of the Audubon Zoo.
- The 300-mile-wide storm came ashore at Grand Isle, putting New Orleans in the dangerous northeast quadrant, Tulane University geographer Richard Campanella wrote. Its eye passed 12 miles west of downtown New Orleans.
- As the storm proceeded toward Tangipahoa and St. Tammany parishes, a Times-Picayune reporter described “a peculiar lightening … flaring up in sheets not unlike the fire coming out of the mouths of serpents.”
- Levees failed, Campanella said. The Florida Avenue rear-protection levee breached in a number of spots, allowing Bayou Bienvenue to pour into the lightly populated rears of the 7th, 8th and 9th wards. Flooding was worse in St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, in part because, as during Katrina, the swollen Mississippi spilled laterally over the riverfront levees and swept across the low country.
- The storm wiped out four small communities — Ruddock, Napton, Wagram, and Frienier — that once lay between Manchac and LaPlace along the western shore of Lake Pontchartrain. About 30 people there were killed.
- In a 1990 interview, Helen Schlosser Burg, the last Wagram resident, described how she and others struggled aboard a train that was coming through as the storm was raging. But the track behind and in front of the train was washed out, and water inside the train was 2 feet deep. “Everyone kneeled down in the train in the water and prayed for hours,” she said. “We knew a lot of our people were still outside somewhere in the storm.”
- In a report to the Sewerage & Water Board, George G. Earl, the general superintendent, acknowledged problems, including a falling steeple that caused a break in a water line and collapsing towers at power stations, but, he said, “no city anywhere in the world could have withstood these conditions with less damage and less inconvenience than has New Orleans.”
N.O. DNA: After enduring three centuries of hurricane seasons, New Orleanians have learned how to predict these storms, how to prepare for them and when, if necessary, to evacuate. But in studying the 1915 storm, Campanella pointed out that the biggest source of damage came from the lashing winds and not the water because, he said, there was much more marsh and swamp surrounding the city to act as a buffer against storm surge than exist today. In that regard, the unnamed hurricane of 1915 should stand as a stark reminder of the dire cost of decades of unchecked coastal erosion. At the same time, it underscores the need to combat it with continued coastal restoration efforts.