It seems that each generation in any family with deep roots in south
Louisiana has its unforgettable storm.
For my grandfather, it was the storm of 1918. He lived in Lake Charles and I can still hear in my mind’s ear his recollection of how the “old Borealis Rex,” the mail boat that ran between Lake Charles and Cameron, was battered to pieces.
My father vividly remembered the storm of 1940 that brought record rainfall to southwest Louisiana, driving thousands of people from flooded homes in Crowley, Gueydan, Lafayette and elsewhere.
I will never forget June 27, 1957. That was the day Hurricane Audrey smashed into southwest Louisiana, drowning nearly 400 people and causing $150 million damage.
As a teenager I stood on the front porch of our lakefront home in Lake Charles and watched, as a tidal surge from the hurricane poured into the lake. I’d never seen anything like it in my life and the only thing I’ve seen like it since was the incredible maelstrom when Lake Peigneur drained into a salt mine in November 1980. Our wharf, normally five feet above water, was five feet below the water in just minutes.
Our house was well above the level of the lake; no water got to us.
We lost a big sycamore tree, but other than that nothing happened to us that gave us a clue to what was happening in the communities close to the Gulf.
The first indication came when the Offshore Lafourche, one of the first rescue boats to make the three-hour trip up the Calcasieu Ship Channel, brought 400 refugees from lower Cameron Parish to the Port of Lake Charles. The single road leading through the marsh had been washed away and the only way to get inland was by boat.
Survivors aboard the boat were in shock and could barely speak, but they didn’t have to say much. “Gone, all gone,” they said. Their eyes said they were speaking not only of houses, stores, and barns, but also of family, friends, and neighbors.
Ten dead people were aboard that boat. It was followed by a steady stream of fishing boats and shrimp boats and oil rig tenders and, later, by private craft that formed a Dunkirk-like procession to the coast to find and bring back battered survivors and the bodies of those who had not survived.
That’s when the sirens began; they did not stop for days.
Morning, noon, and night sirens wailed as ambulance after ambulance rushed past our house heading from the Port to already overfilled emergency rooms at St. Patrick’s Hospital, just a few blocks from our home. They carried people who suffered from cuts, breaks, abrasions, exposure, snakebite, and simple physical and mental exhaustion.
Then came the screaming newspaper headlines, the scratchy, black-and-white television footage, and the radio reports that confirmed what the sirens had foretold. Hundreds of people were dead. Hundreds more were only half-alive when they were finally rescued from trees and floating debris that had once been their homes.
Some were able, finally, to tell their stories—of wind and water, of watching loved ones slip away as homes broke up or rafts made from rooftops could no longer float, or how they survived the storm only to do deadly battle with poisonous snakes.
We lost none of our immediate family or close friends in the storm, but everybody in southwest Louisiana knew someone who had. Audrey left none of our lives untouched.
In more recent times, Katrina’s carnage has been as traumatic for residents of New Orleans and the parishes below it. Rita and Ike and Gustav have left strong impressions in southwest Louisiana for another generation, and revived memories of Audrey for many who remember 1957.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.