Washing Away: A Pre-Katrina Warning Ignored?

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New Orleans top newspaper, The Times-Picayune, did an exhaustive 5 part series back in June of 2002 called “Washing Away”. The pieces warned about what a hurricane has done and could do to The Big Easy.

Here’s an excerpt from the first part of the series called In Harm’s Way

On the night of Aug. 10, 1856, a powerful hurricane struck Last Island off the southern tip of Terrebonne Parish. The sea rose in the darkness and trapped hundreds of summer vacationers visiting the popular resort. Wind-driven waves 8 feet high raked the island and tore it in two.

By morning, everything standing upright was broken, splintered and washed away, including all of the island’s trees, its casinos, a hotel and the summer homes of wealthy New Orleans families. More than 200 people died. Many were crushed and others drowned after being struck by wreckage in the maelstrom.

Claire Rose Champagne’s great-great-grandmother Amelie Voisin and a baby daughter were among those lost in the storm. Other family members survived and eventually abandoned Last Island â€â€? today the Isles Dernieres archipelago â€â€? for Dulac, a fishing village 30 miles inland up Bayou Grand Caillou. But there was no escape from the storms, which have followed the family inland over five generations.

In 1909, Champagne’s fisherman grandfather was out at sea when another hurricane lashed the Louisiana coast with 110-mph winds that propelled a 10-foot wave of water through Dulac.

“My grandmother and (her) children were left at home and saved themselves by climbing into the attic of the house,” she said. “Forty people tied ropes to the house and to two oak trees, then all stayed in the attic â€â€? women and children and some men. After the hurricane the government sent some tents for people to live in.” Her grandfather made it back alive, but about 350 people along the coast died in the storm.

Hurricanes are a common heritage for Louisiana residents, who until the past few decades had little choice in facing a hurricane but to ride it out and pray.

Today, billions of dollars worth of levees, sea walls, pumping systems and satellite hurricane tracking provide a comforting safety margin that has saved thousands of lives.

But modern technology and engineering mask an alarming fact: In the generations since those storms menaced Champagne’s ancestors, south Louisiana has been growing more vulnerable to hurricanes, not less.

Sinking land and chronic coastal erosion � in part the unintended byproducts of flood-protection efforts � have opened dangerous new avenues for even relatively weak hurricanes and tropical storms to assault areas well inland.

“There’s no doubt about it,” said Windell Curole, general manager of the South Lafourche Levee District, who maintains a hurricane levee that encircles Bayou Lafourche from Larose to the southern tip of Golden Meadow. “The biggest factor in hurricane risk is land loss. The Gulf of Mexico is, in effect, probably 20 miles closer to us than it was in 1965 when Hurricane Betsy hit.”

If you have the time, please read them all. Heartbreaking stuff.

Part 2 – The Big One

Part 3 – Exposure’s Cost

Part 4 – Tempting Fate

Part 5 – Cost Of Survival

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