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KILLER STORMS OF THE GULF

by Charles Wharton

Marine Reporter
713.943-8555
July, 1984 Page9

As we get deeper into the 1984 hurricane season, civil defense teams along the Gulf Coast enact their annual “storm games.”

These teams are aided by groups of professional weather warriors, armed to the teeth with electronic surveillance packages on land, in the sea, in the air, and even in spare. All these sophisticated wares were developed to keep us alive and our property relatively safe in the event of a classic killer storm ripping its way to land from the Gulf of Mexico.

These people and equipment are devoted to giving us fair warning that these furious storms are in our area so we can prepare for them, days in advance.

Capt. John S. Thompson did not have the advantage of these people and their machines as he supervised the loading of his steamship, The NAUTILUS, in the Port of Galveston.

In his time, Capt. Thompson’s best protection from a killer storm was a good eye, lock and the will to live.

He loaded 30 passengers, the U.S. malt, 200 horses, and 70 head of cattle. Then he gave the order to leave for New Orleans at 5 p.m., August 7. 1856.

The lives of those on the NAUTILUS were tragically connected with about 500 others on a 25-mite long. one-mile-wide, Gulf of Mexico resort island just a few mites off the Louisiana coast.

Those were the members of well- known and prominent Louisianans vacationing on Last Island, a popular summer spot where the well-to-do spent time with their families.

The same day Capt. Thompson and his peers on other steamships began chugging toward Louisiana, the families of planters and politicians on Last Island became disturbed by growing ferocity in the waters and wind.

They arrived from the mainland either by rail or boat to the Gulf Coast, and from there by steamer to their summer cottages or Muggah’s Hotel, on the western part of the island. Many thought they were getting the added treat of an overnight storm at sea.

The wind had picked up from the northwest and the waves became too angry for the few swimmers who tried them.

Should the storm become more threatening, their only means of escape would he a steamer called STAR, due from the mainland by the night of August 9. The guests consoled each other, believing their rescue ship would come, should they need it.

Rut the wind increased steadily from the north alt day August 8. Foamy waves began crashing into the island from the opposite direction.

Hotel owner Dave Muggah had a fine cotillion band play for the guests in his hotel’s ballroom. But after the night of Saturaday, August 9, arrived with no sign of the STAR, people began storm preparations on an island that, as everyone knew, was only five feet above sea level.

On early Sunday morning, the guests rejoiced when the STAR appeared.

The weak little boat valiantly battled barriers of wind and waves in its approach to the island, only to be thrown aground, helpless, with the guests hopes of a facile escape.

The wind, waves and rain continued to increase in ferocity as the Great Hurricane of 1856 moved in to claim about 200 lives there.

One of the most destructive storms to attack the Louisiana Gulf Coast that century, it pounded the Louisiana barrier islands alt day Sunday until the nest evening.

Last Island caught the worst part of the storm, the northeast quarter.

It claimed lives on many of the ships bound to and from the Port of New Orleans.

As Capt. Thompson’s NAUTILUS chugged into the area early on August 10, heavy seas and gale-force winds tore away its mainmast, blew away its foremast and capsized the vessel.

A lone survivor from the NAUTILUS, clinging to a door, was rescued eight days later. A fellow passenger adrift with him had become delirious and jumped into the water.

Damage reports from journalists and witnesses were as undependable as storm warnings in 1856, but at least four other ships were destroyed by the storm and numerous others were driven aground, leaving us many as several hundred dead.

On Last Island, the scene was just as tragic.

Children were torn from the arms of their nurses and parents. Men and women fleeing to safety were struck by debris and rendered helpless.

Salt spray stung the Last Island guests as they clang to any object that seemed stationary. Some made their way to the wreck of the STAR and were saved. Others grasped planks and debris and were swept away.

Before it was over, no structure was left standing. Of the up to 500 staying at Last Island, about half were saved. Many of the survivors suffered broken limbs.

Severe weather continued after the storm moved ashore, doing great damage to crops and buildings throughout Louisiana.

Looters utmost beat the rescue ships to the island. They quickly began violating the dead, picking valuables from their bodies.

As the first reports of looters reached the mainland, vigilante groups formed to identify the dead and punish the pirates, most likely by firing squad.

Some of the looters, before prosecution, were coerced to lead the vigilantes to some of the storm victims. Studs had been ripped from dead men’s shirts, earrings torn from ladies’ ears and rings cut from fingers.

Not alt the looters were caught in the act, but mainland merchants were on the lookout and months afterward helped catch a number of other pirates by identifying stolen jewelry on their persons.

Today, what remains of Last Island is a series of small, broken barrier islands.

What survives of the tragedy is a number of writings, a few of them excellent. The best of the accounts are “Chits: A Memory of Last Island,” by LaFacudio Hearn, originally published in 1889 and reprinted by AMS Press, New York in 1969: and “Last Island,’’ by James M. ,Sothern, Published in 1980 by Cheri Publications, Inc., of Houma, Louisiana.

Neither book is easy to find on the consumer market.

But perhaps the greatest works to come of the hurricane of 1856 and the many destructive storms since are the trained weather professionals and their sophisticated weapons to predict and track the life-threatening disturbances.

While hurricanes continue to destroy property and threaten lives whenever they land, our weather professionals have done much to teach us how to protect ourselves and, however possible, our lives from these storms.

In the storms aftermath, our civil defense workers and National Guard move in to prevent the kind of tooting seen on Last Island, and to aid communities’ cleanup and repair efforts.

Capt. Thompson, his crew and his passengers did not have these advantages when they undertook that final voyage, but it is partly due to him and other such victims that we have learned to minimize the toss of life from these terrible storms.

As we keep striving and learning, perhaps we can minimize the threat, as well.

DID YOU KNOW

The U.S. formally recognized the government of Panama November, 1903.

  
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