Monday, July 06, 2009

The ravaging of Louisiana's Isle Dernière

Meteorologist Dr. Jeff Masters has posted a very interesting book review of Dr. Abby Sallenger's Island in a Storm, which recounts the story of the destruction of Louisiana's Isle Dernière island by the Cat 4 "Last Island" Hurricane of 1856. The island, a barrier island off the southern coast of Louisiana, was 24 miles long and 5-to-6 feet high. It was completely submerged by the storm surge, and many years of erosion over the last 150 years have reduced the land area of the island to less than 22% of what it once was, as shown in the image below:

The story is full of interesting details, as Masters writes:
I found it fascinating to read about the Yellow Fever epidemic that hit the region during 1856, which drove many of New Orleans' wealthy residents to seek sanctuary on the seemingly safe ocean front retreat of Isle Dernière for the summer...

We hear the story of how the hurricane's winds gradually tore apart all the homes and hotels on Isle Dernière, leaving the hundreds of people at the mercy of the storm surge. Many were swept away, but some survived harrowing voyages on pieces of debris during a dark and terrifying night. One group of survivors on the island managed to live by hanging on to a children's carousel, whose central post had been driven deep into the sand to anchor it. As the wind and water surged the around them, the desperate survivors hung onto the whirligig as it spun around. "The twirling and twisting, the dashing and splashing, the heeling and toeing, the flapping and floundering which ensued, would at any other time have produced a first-class comedy", one of the survivors relates.
And, of course, the story of the storm is not without its remarks of caution:
The survivors on the storm-ravaged island were not visited at first by relief ships, but by pirates eager to prey on the dead and the living. Relief eventually reached the 200 or so survivors on the island, and a romance leading to marriage is one happy outcome of the storm's wake.

Barrier islands are terrible places to build human settlements, and "the lesson of the flood was not forgotten," according to one of the survivors. The resorts on Isles Dernières were never rebuilt. Sallenger notes that "such lessons are forgotten or ignored. In the last century and a half, the Village of Isle Dernière was one of only a few seafront communities that were destroyed or severely damaged in a storm and never rebuilt. The common practice is not only to rebuild structures on devastated coasts but also to make them bigger and more elaborate...We continue in the United States to develop extremely hazardous coastal locations, like the low-lying areas on the Bolivar Peninsula east of Galveston, Texas, that were wiped out in 2008 by Hurricane Ike. The extreme vulnerability of such locations today will only increase as the world's seas rise."
Read the whole review...


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