Long before meteorologists and satellites, before television and radio or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there were hurricanes. They came and went with the same scatter-bang ferocity, capricious tempests hurled from the Gulf and the Atlantic. They didn’t get names until 1950, but they were no less deadly, no less pernicious. What the pre-20th century storms had going for them was an element of surprise.
A century before Category 3 Hurricane Betsy wrecked Grand Isle and swamped New Orleans, an even deadlier storm minced Isle Derniere, also known as Last Island — another of Louisiana’s barrier islands and a popular antebellum resort destination for south Louisiana’s planter class. More than 300 people on the island and in nearby ships perished in the unnamed Category 4 storm, according to a new account by Bill Dixon. Last Days of Last Island: The Hurricane of 1856, Louisiana’s First Great Storm (University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press) is an engrossing account of the tumult — the gathering clouds, the increasing wind, the sinking feeling, the crashing waves and rising water — and its aftermath. Among the survivors of the catastrophe was state House Speaker Col. William Whitmell Hill Pugh, who lost several family members.
Dixon was drawn to the story of Isle Deniere by a case of mistaken genealogy. “I was working on a family tree on my mother’s side — my mom was born in Gueydan and her mom was born on Bayou Lafourche,” he recalls, pronouncing the bayou like the locals — L’foosh, “I ran across a couple of references to the 1856 storm, and because my ancestors were from Assumption Parish, maybe there were some relatives on the island during the storm. As it turned out, that wasn’t the case.” But Dixon was hooked; the island reeled him in.
The hurricane of 1856 claimed 331 lives on land and at sea, according to Dixon’s tab. The tragedy became the basis for Lafcadio Hearns’ 1889 novella, Chita — part of the genesis for Dixon’s interest in the story — and was long the Gulf Coast’s benchmark by which other storms were judged.
Last Days is also a first of sorts: Although the University of Louisiana at Lafayette has been publishing books since the 1970s through the Center for Louisiana Studies, this is only the second title and first full-length book published with the UL imprint, according to Greg Mouton, marketing director for the UL Press. “A lot of university presses are going through some dire straits with all the budget cut-backs in higher education, a lot of people are feeling the effects,” Mouton says, “but we’re moving ahead and we’re showing some profits, which a lot of university presses out there right now are having a hard time doing.” ULL Press is set to embark on a second, strictly paperback printing of Last Days of Last Island. Mouton says the book is selling particularly well in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes where many residents are descendants of Derniere survivors and victims. “To me it’s an honor,” Dixon says of the research and writing. “One of the things that I’m going to tell people at every place I stop is that, my name may be on the book ... but this is really y’all’s story, and I just hope I did justice to it.”
Louisiana's 21 casinos took in $203.5 million statewide in June, edging up one-half of a percentage point from a year earlier.
Three bedroom Sunset Victorian or three bedroom Opelousas Acadian home
Louisiana designer commissioned for NYC Awards gift
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is considering whether to get involved in a lawsuit against Gov. Bobby Jindal for his attempts to undermine use of the Common Core education standards in Louisiana's public schools.
Business First Bank has announced plans for a Baton Rouge market expansion through a merger deal with American Gateway Financial Corp.
Acadiana's nightlife guide.
The latest meeting of a south Louisiana flood board that stirred political turmoil with a lawsuit against the oil and gas industry is taking place amid uncertainty over the future of the lawsuit — and the board's own membership.
The photos taken nearly a mile under the Gulf of Mexico are so clear that small holes are visible in a lifeboat that may have gone down or been scuttled when a passenger ship was sunk by a Nazi submarine in 1942.
Advocate columnist and Jindal shill Quin Hillyer has been against the New Orleans levee board lawsuit from day one, but a recent piece targeting author/activist John Barry prompted the perfect rebuttal from the board’s former vice-president, who takes Hillyer to task on just about every distorted claim he’s made on the issue.
Thursday's Blogs from the Bog!
INDEats and EatLafayette want to give one lucky foodie and friends the most memorable meal — here’s how you can win
Pat Bowlen steps down; typhoon caused Taiwan plane crash; Arizona execution botched and more national and international news for Thursday, July 24, 2014.
Thousands of people who bought health insurance through the marketplace created by the federal health care overhaul face price hikes next year that could top 10 percent.
Three bedroom traditional Lafayette home or three bedroom Breaux Bridge home
Style market slated for old Artesia
The city prosecutor has released the case file for Lafayette Parish School Board member Tehmi Chassion’s simple battery complaint against Superintendent Pat Cooper, and the seven witness statements given to police illustrate two very different scenarios.
Acadiana's nightlife guide.
Louisiana fell one spot in an annual national ranking of child well-being that looks at poverty, education and health access.
A federal judge has decided he doesn't need to hear more arguments in the case of a gay couple who want a Louisiana marriage license.
Saints again bring playoff aspirations into 2014 campaign.
New details in the case against the man arrested for last week’s bomb threat and bank robbery has surfaced, including a MidSouth Bank surveillance video showing the alleged suspect attempt an early-morning bank robbery.
Citing conflicting witness accounts, the city prosecutor will not pursue Tehmi Chassion’s allegation of simple battery against Superintendent Pat Cooper.
Smoked meat, fresh sides and the best boudin around
Mellow Mushroom Pizza Bakers opens on Johnston.
Cirque du Soleil effortlessly combines circus art with beloved Michael Jackson hits.
Kelly Guidry Open House
Parents and teachers who support the Common Core education standards sued Gov. Bobby Jindal Tuesday over his actions against the multi-state standards, accusing him of illegally meddling in education policy.
Acadiana's nightlife guide.
An arrest was announced this morning in connection with last week’s bomb scare at UL Lafayette.
Attorneys, judges and others interviewed by LaPolitics expect 15 to 20 district judge races this year.