1856 Last Island hurricane
Map of Last Island, Louisiana in 1853
|Formed||Before August 9, 1856|
|Dissipated||August 12, 1856|
|Highest winds||1-minute sustained:
150 mph (240 km/h)
|Lowest pressure||934 mbar (hPa); 27.58 inHg|
|Areas affected||Louisiana and southwestern Mississippi|
|Part of the 1856 Atlantic hurricane season|
The 1856 Last Island hurricane (also known as the Great Storm of 1856) was one of the deadliest tropical cyclones on record in Louisiana. The first known tropical cyclone of the season, it was first observed as minimal hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico near Dry Tortugas on August 9. The storm moved northwestward and strengthened, becoming a Category 2 hurricane about 12 hours later. The hurricane reached Category 3 strengthened late on August 9. It continued to deepen and became a Category 4 hurricane on the following day. Late on August 10, the hurricane peaked with winds of 150 mph (240 km/h). Around that time, the storm made landfall in Last Island, Louisiana. It rapidly weakened inland and fell to tropical storm intensity on August 11. The system then drifted northeastward, until dissipating over Mississippi early on August 12.
Offshore, at least 183 people drowned after steamers and schooners sunk in rough seas produced by the hurricane. A storm surge between 11 and 12 feet (3.4 and 3.7 m) lashed Last Island, Louisiana. The island was completely submerged, with virtually every structure destroyed, including the hotels and casinos, while all crops were ruined. Additionally, Last Island itself split in two. Inland, heavy rainfall caused the Mermentau River, destroying crops and every house in Abbeville. The storm produced up to 13.14 inches (334 mm) of precipitation to New Orleans. In Plaquemines Parish, rice fields were under several feet of water, while many orange trees lost their fruit. The storm resulted in at least 200 fatalities.
The cyclone was first detected in the eastern Gulf of Mexico 125 miles (200 km) west-northwest of Key West, Florida, on August 8, 1856. At the time, it was analyzed as a minimal hurricane by the Atlantic hurricane reanalysis project near Key West, but because it was already a hurricane when it was first observed, it probably had developed further east than here. It steadily advanced northwest, strengthening to the equivalent of a Category 3 hurricane. The hurricane gradually slowed prior to landfall on August 10, and it attained its estimated peak intensity of 150 mph (240 km/h). It was a tropical cyclone of small diameter, and its maximum sustained winds may have reached Category 5 status, but were unrecorded. In the early evening of August 10 the northeastern edge of the eye crossed over Last Island (Official name: Isle Dernière) before making landfall a few hours later south of New Iberia, LA. The cyclone is believed to have struck southern Louisiana at peak intensity with an approximate central pressure of 934 mbar (27.58 inHg). A ship reported a peripheral pressure of 955 mbar (28.20 inHg), so a lower pressure was based on the small size of the hurricane. It quickly weakened over land, and it diminished to a tropical storm on August 11. It dissipated over southwestern Mississippi on August 12 with fully tropical characteristics.
Impact and aftermath
Many guests hoping to escape were counting on the scheduled arrival of the Star which provided regular service to the mainland. However, the Star was blown off course, barely escaping sailing into the open gulf, directly into the hurricane, where she would almost certainly been lost. Passenger Tom Ellis, an experienced captain in local waters, and a few other passengers noticed the ship was off course. Ellis alerted Captain Abe Smith, who corrected the course and barely making headway against the winds, managed to pull into the channel behind the hotel. The Star was swept, crashing into shore and beached on the sand, where she stayed through the storm.
Visibility during the storm was extremely limited and eyes were blasted by blowing sand until water covered the beaches. Sometime between 4:00 and 5:00 PM the storm surge occurred suddenly, with the water rising several feet in a matter of minutes. The storm surge submerged the entire island and destroyed all of the buildings. The hotel, which held many women and children on the second floor and men on the first, collapsed, crushing many and sweeping others out to sea.
Several survivors managed to make their way to the hull of the Star. By tying himself with a rope to the Star, Captain Abe Smith was able to rescue at least 40 people from the storm surge. The Star would serve as a shelter for the survivors until rescuers arrived three days later.
Many managed to survive by taking shelter in or behind overturned cisterns, which were large wooden cylindrical tanks reinforced with iron hoops. Some clung to the raised foundations of the cisterns and a few to trees. A dozen people survived by clinging to a large piece of rotating playground equipment atop a levee. Many floated on debris, including wall sections, logs and furniture. A sturdy wooden enclosure that held large terrapins, a regional delicacy, provided enough protection to save several individuals. Another group survived by burying their feet in the sand and holding hands. Some survivors were carried to the marshes on the mainland, although many perished from injuries or lack of food and water.
Of the approximately 400 vacationers on the island, 198 were known or presumed dead and 203 were known survivors. Dixon (2009) provides lists of survivors and the dead.
The tragedy greatly affected the planter society, which lost many prominent members. At the time of the hurricane approximately two thirds of the millionaires in the U.S. lived in Louisiana, many of those being plantation owners, especially sugar growers. The social group affected was rather close knit, many being friends, acquaintances, or related by marriage or known through business.
Several of the victims were slaves. Some of the slaves were credited with rescuing people, including several children.
The home of three of the Last Island casualties is the popular tourist attraction Shadows on the Teche Plantation where Mrs. Francis Weeks (Magill) Prewitt and her children Ida Magill and Agustin Magill lived. The children are buried on the grounds.
The island itself was split up into the Last Islands (Isles Dernieres). The island reportedly stayed submerged for several days before parts of it reemerged as large sandbars. Following the storm surge, the remains of the Star were the only sign that an island had ever existed there. Today, the area is utilized by pelicans and other birds.
The following is the number of deaths offshore:
- Steamer Nautilus: 85
- Steamer Manilla: 13
- Schooner Ellen: 15
- Other losses at sea: 20
The city of New Orleans was inundated with 13.14 inches (335 mm) of rain. Every building in the town of Abbeville, Louisiana, was destroyed. There was severe flooding throughout Plaquemines Parish.
The disaster was in the national news as soon as three of survivors salvaged a small boat and sailed to the mainland for help.
In addition to the several first hand accounts, the story of Lost Island has resurfaced periodically over the years. The list below contains only a few versions:
- In 1871 Harper's New Monthly carried a story about the capsizing of the steamer Nautilus and Jim Frisbee, the ship's second steward, the only survivor.
- Lafcadio Hearn's Chita: A Memory of Last Island (1889) based on the Last Island hurricane of 1856, was a popular story when published; however, it either created or perpetuated several myths about the tragedy. One of the main sources of Hearn's novel was identified as the account written by Iberville Parish, Louisiana sugar planter Michael Shlatre. After publication of the Chita, Michael Shlatre's document went missing after being borrowed but never returned. The document was discovered in the Iberville Parish courthouse in Plaquemine, LA in 1936.
- Bill Dixon's Last Days of Last Island was written using information from various archives in an attempt to be historically accurate. The numerous references include a newspaper article, a few books, and accounts of the survivors, many of whom are quoted.
- Last Island, by James M. Sothern, Market$hare Enterprises, 1980.
- Last Days of Last Island, by Bill Dixon, University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 2009. ISBN 1-887366-88-1
- Island in a Storm: A Rising Sea, a Vanishing Coast, and a Nineteenth-Century Disaster that Warns of a Warmer World, by Abby Sallenger, Public Affairs, Perseus Book Group, NY, 2009. ISBN 1-58648-515-6, ISBN 978-1-58648-515-3
- National Hurricane Center; Hurricane Research Division (February 28, 2014). "Atlantic hurricane best track (HURDAT version 2)". United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Retrieved March 13, 2014.
- Partagas, Jose Fernandez and Dias, H. F. (1995). "Part One: Year 1856". NOAA. Archived from the original on 27 February 2008. Retrieved 2008-02-19.
- Dixon, Bill (2009). Last Days of Last Island: The Hurricane of 1856, Louisiana’s First Great Storm. Lafayette, LA: University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press. ISBN 1-887366-88-1
- "A minister tempered by the elements". Lafourche.com. Retrieved 2008-02-19.
- Roth, David. "Louisiana Hurricane History: Late 19th Century". National Weather Service. Archived from the original on 2008-05-21. Retrieved 2008-02-19.