160th Anniversary of the Last Island hurricane

Map of Last Island prior to hurricane of 1856
Map of Last Island prior to hurricane of 1856

On August 10, 1856, a severe hurricane struck the Louisiana coast, cutting a channel through Last Island (Isle Dernière) and destroying the resort there.  The storm was first detected near the Dry Tortugas the day before.  It crossed the Gulf of Mexico and rapidly gained strength.  There were no measurements of the wind, but some have estimated them to be near 150 mph (240 km/hr).  183 people perished in ships at sea as the storm swept up the Gulf.

There was little warning of the approaching storm, but once it became apparent, many vacationers on Last Island wanted to leave.  However, the only means off the island was by ferry ship, which ran a regular route between Last Island and New Orleans.  To allay the fears of the waiting guests, the owners of the main hotel on the island opened up the ballroom for music and dancing.  Meanwhile, the ferry ship Star was blown off course, and only arrived at Last Island at the height of the storm.  It became beached and could only rescue people swept off shore.  The eye moved over the island, and its storm surge completely inundated the resort, destroying the hotel and associated vacation cottages.  198 of the 401 people at the resort were killed.  The island remained underwater for several days and when the waters receded a channel carved by the storm surge had split Last Island in two.

The hurricane continued inland, demolishing Abeville and inundating New Orleans with heavy rainfall.  An additional 200 people died on mainland Louisiana.  News of the disaster at the resort spread once survivors were able to reach New Orleans by bateaux.  It was a shock to the nation, as some of the cream of Louisiana society were among the dead.  The story of the storm became iconic for generations of the destruction of hurricanes and inspired Lafcadio Hearn to write the novel “Chita: A Memory of Last Island” in 1889.