Other than the two major fires in the late 1700s, has New Orleans ever suffered adversity on par with Hurricane Katrina?
In the early days of our city, fires were indeed a serious problem, and the ones in 1788 and 1794 did a great deal of damage. The March 21, 1788 fire, known as the Good Friday Fire, incinerated about 1,000 buildings in about six hours. The smoke had barely cleared when the next great fire destroyed more than 200 buildings.
But before there was fire, there was wind and flood. While the effects of Hurricane Katrina were cataclysmic, the first hurricane to strike the new city almost completely destroyed it.
When Bienville and his crew started to construct New Orleans in 1718, they managed to build a warehouse and about 100 log huts in no particular arrangement. In 1721, a Jesuit priest and historian from France described it as a place of a hundred wretched hovels in a malarious wet thicket of willows and dwarf palmettos, infested by serpents and alligators.
Just as the early citizens of Nouvelle Orleans were struggling to establish themselves, the first well-documented hurricane to hit New Orleans came along in September 1722. Thirty-six huts were destroyed as well as a small hospital and the first St. Louis Church. Another hurricane followed in 1723. When the city began rebuilding, it followed the original plan designed by Adrian de Pauger, Bienville's engineer -- a grid pattern of streets around a public square. It's the plan we recognize today as the Vieux Carre.
Throughout the 18th century, hurricanes continued to plague the growing city, but the next storm to cripple New Orleans came on Sept. 29, 1915. This unnamed storm caused structural damage to more than 25,000 buildings. Wind produced most of the damage, but flooding was kept to a minimum due to improved pumping capability. However, 275 people died in its wake along the Gulf Coast. For generations after, folks in southeast Louisiana referred to it as the Great Storm of 1915.
Another dreadful hurricane struck in September 1947. While the levees and pumping system protected the city from major flooding, many areas of the new suburbs in Jefferson Parish were seriously flooded. Two feet of water closed Moisant Airport (Now Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport).
And then came Betsy. The city barely survived the hurricane of Sept. 9, 1965, that many of us remember clearly and talked about every year thereafter when hurricane season opened. Thousands of people were displaced, wind damaged or destroyed countless buildings and flooding was extensive, especially in the Lower Ninth Ward. Betsy was always "the big one," and indeed the most destructive storm of the 20th century. In fact, the name Betsy was retired from the recurring list of names for Atlantic hurricanes. We hoped there would never be another like her.
Fortunately, we escaped further serious damage throughout the 20th century, but little did we dream of the storm yet to come in the 21st century.
The Army Corps of Engineers' Hurricane Protection Plan came into existence as a result of Hurricane Betsy. The Corps built levees that were supposed to withstand a Category 3 hurricane like Betsy. But after 40 years of levee improvement, the results were insufficient to withstand the new "big one": Katrina. May there never be another like her.
I'm an old displaced New Orleans native having grown up on Port and Burgundy streets. I got wind of your newsletter recently and loved it. Please let me know how I can get it regularly.
You must have been gone from Port and Burgundy for a very long time. My column -- not a newsletter -- appears every week in Gambit Weekly. The newspaper has been published for more than 25 years, winning awards in just about every category. If you're in New Orleans or the metropolitan area, you can pick up a copy at more than 375 locations. But since you live so far away, you can read about your native city online at www.bestofneworleans.com. I'm always amazed at the readers who live in faraway places. Recently I got an email from Dubai, Saudi Arabia.