The Hurricane of 1893
"The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude."
- Kate Chopin, The Awakening
On Sunday, October 1st, 1893 one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the United States occurred in Louisiana. The Great Storm, or the Hurricane of 1893 destroyed the tiny island of Cheniere Caminada, killing about half of its inhabitants. According to church records, the population of Cheniere at the time of the storm was 1471, and of that number, 779 were killed. In all, the storm would claim over 2000 lives.
Grand Isle and Cheniere were probably the earliest known islands in the Barataria region of Louisiana. Once home to the cruelest and greatest assassin among pirates, Vincent Gambi, the area, especially Grand Isle, eventually became a popular tourist destination for the upper class. It was common that women and children would stay in the hot summer months on Grand Isle, while their husbands worked in the city and visited on weekends. Kate Chopin and her children were among the visitors to the islands.
The coastal waters of Grand Isle had a mythical allure to them, and were believed by some to cure nervous prostration, paralysis, anemia, rheumatism, and malaria. Described as a "beautiful, sandy land, symmetrically oblong in shape and about ten miles wide," Grand Isle was the gem of the Louisiana coast.
Cheniere Caminada juts into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico to the west of Grand Isle. Cheniere Caminada, approximately 55 miles by boat from New Orleans, was a lush peninsula jutting out into the Gulf of Mexico,located in the southernmost tip of Jefferson Parish. Cheniere Caminida's weather, with it's close proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, supported the sugar industry, along with supplying fruit from their fragrant orange groves, and a large fishing industry that supplied New Orleans restaurants with shrimp, crabs, and oysters. The Cheniere was mostly French-speaking, but multi-ethnic area. The islands, being in such a vulnerable spot, were no stranger to storms. In 1860, Grand Isle was devastated by a powerful storm, but rebuilt shortly after.
Cheniere Caminada's church, Our Lady of Lourdes, was one that visitors from Grand Isle, and the residents of Cheniere would fill on Sunday mornings. Kate Chopin alludes to this church in The Awakening, and names it specifically in her short story, "At Cheniere Caminada," which also introduces the character of Madame Lebrun, who was the mother of Robert in The Awakening.
On September 30, the US Weather Bureau's forecasted the weather for the Louisiana Gulf: "fair, preceded by light showers... with southeasterly winds." That saturday night on the Cheniere there was no panic; the Cheniere was known for their Saturday night parties, and Sundays were days of rest and worship. Sunday, October 1, 1893 started out like any other Sunday on Cheniere Caminada. It was a calm morning, and the waters of the Gulf were calm. As morning turned to afternoon, the weather changed for the worst. A fisherman of the Cheniere, Andre Gilbeaux, gathered his family and friends for a feast at his home.
Raising his glass, in a calm voice he said, as told by his surviving brother:
"Gentlemen, this will be the last time we will be together, for to-night I will drown. There will be companions with me in my death. You may think that I am crazy, but I cannot help that, for I am firmly convinced that a watery death will be mine. I will now toast to all, and hope peace and rest will be mine. May God bless all that remain behind, and peace to my companions' ashes that will die with me." His eerie premonition proved true.
With its origins in the Caribbean, the Category 4 storm's gale winds, with waves over ten feet, were beating down on the islands by 7pm. The waves continued to grow, some say reaching higher than 20 feet, as the storm raged. The bell of the beloved Our Lady of Lourdes Church, which was casted out of 19th century pirate silver, clanged throughout the storm, until it was eventually blown into the sea, later to wash ashore on Grand Isle.
The Great Hurricane of 1893 was not just a storm, but the second largest natural disaster in U.S. history. The winds were believed to be in excess of 100 MPH. The storm raged for hours. Due to the Cheniere having no protection from barrier islands, the effects of the storm were magnified. There was no place for the people on the island to escape the fury. If they could not get to the church, or one of 4 homes left standing, some people managed to cling to rafts and debris. Some held on for hours and even days.
One of the survivors of the storm, a priest named Pere Grimeaux, gave an account to reporters shortly after the storm. Pere Grimeaux stated the storm started about 7 pm and raged for hours. As the wind blew the waters of the gulf over the island, Pere survived by taking refuge on the top floor of the church. Through the storm, he held a lantern in the window as a beacon to any who needed refuge. He stated that he prayed through the storm or the people he heard screaming and moaning. His lantern was a beacon to the nearly 700 who survived the storm.
Once the storm passed from the area, the remaining residents of Cheniere had to not only cope with the loss of their homes, but also with the loss of friends, families, and neighbors.
Those bodies that were not lost at sea were scattered on the island. By the Tuesday after the hurricane, the remaining residents of the island had used sticks and poles to dig the graves for four hundred bodies. After that, the unburied remaining bodies threatened disease, so to hasten the burial process, mass graves were utilized. By October 6th, there were still bodies left unburied, and some were to remain that way since they were trapped under large amounts of rubble. Even with the sorrow and devastation that claimed the island, some people came into the area to rob the bodies of their clothes and any possessions.
Once the dead were buried, the survivors abandoned the Cheniere and settled in area of Laforche, Terrebonne, and Jefferson Parish.4 Cheniere Caminada was not the only place devastated by the storm. A town called Oyster Bayou, with a population of 300, was competely wiped out. Another community called Fifi Island, with a tiny population of 30, was also ravaged, leaving no survivors.
Grand Isle saw much destruction from the storm as well. Lives were lost, but not the vast number that seen by Cheniere Caminada or Oyster Bayou. Because of the low sand hills on Grand Isle's shores, their presence managed to soften the hard-hitting impact of the crashing waves, and protected the island from catastrophic damage. Hotels on the island were destroyed, however, and tourism was put on hold. The bell once belonging to Our Lady of Lourdes Church on Cheniere Caminada ended up at Our Lady of the Isle Church on Grand Isle in 1961.
The news of the hurricane slowly made its way throughout the US, likely causing great shock and sadness at such loss. The death toll rose and the horror of what had unfolded at Cheniere was slowly leaked into newspapers as the month of October went on. In response to the tragedy, relief boats were sent to the devastated areas and donations intended to aid in the relief were received from different sources, in different states. With orange groves, cane, and rice fields destroyed, the effects of the hurricane was felt in more places than where it hit. Millions of dollars in damage came after the storm.
The Hurricane of 1893 finally ended on October 5th on the coast of North Carolina. No other area was hit as hard as the Louisiana Gulf Coast during that storm. Some of the survivors from Cheniere Caminada attempted to rebuild their homes and start over, but their efforts were thwarted when it was hit by another hurricane in 1915, wiping out any hope of recovery. Present day Cheniere Caminada has become a place to fish and visit the graves of those lost in the Great Storm. The graves of the victims of the Hurricane of 1893 are still there, but slowly disappearing into the swamp.
Edna Pontellier's life is changed through her experiences on Grand Isle. Later, she ends her steps from its shore into the sea, ending her life in its waters of the Gulf. Kate Chopin never directly mentions the Hurricane of 1893 in her stories or novels. Only two of her stories are set in the areasthat were devastated by the storm: "At Cheniere Caminada" and The Awakening, both written shortly after the hurricane occured. A visitor to Grand Isle and Our Lady of Lourdes Church at Cheniere Caminada, Kate was not a stranger to the area. The storm clearly had an effect on her writing, as evidenced by her use of the Gulf Coast as a setting only after the hurricane. Chopin gives the waters of the Louisana coast the power to awaken love and to take away life. The power of the sea, the mystery of its waters, and the people of the Cheniere and Grand Isle are immortalized by Chopin.