Louisiana Hurricane – September 20, 1909

Six million dollars of damage was caused in New Orleans and 350 people were killed.

The Louisiana hurricane of September 20, 1909, is often referred to as The Grand Isle Hurricane because it was in Grand Isle that it first touched down and where it completely devastated everything around it. It came ashore on September 20, 1909, as a category 4 hurricane and moved across New Orleans causing huge amounts of additional damage, later estimated at six million dollars. It also was responsible for the deaths of 350 people largely as a result of the fifteen-foot storm surge brought by the hurricane.

Extensive flooding occurred in its wake in the northern undeveloped swamp area north of New Orleans. Extensive flooding of this kind in New Orleans is exactly what happened in Katrina but, because low lying areas within the city limits at that time had little residential build up, the consequences of the flooding were much less severe than those of Katrina. The storm dissipated over Southern Missouri by September 22, leaving a memory of being one of the deadliest ever to hit the United States.

Hurricanes are part of a family of weather systems known as tropical cyclones. The word hurricane comes from a West Indian word that means big wind and it normally begins its life as a storm system over warm, tropical waters in the Atlantic. When a storm becomes more organized, it is classified as a tropical depression and given a number by the National Hurricane Center. If the winds increase to 40 mph, it is re- classified and given a name. Later, when the winds reach 75 mph it is upgraded to a hurricane. The winds of a hurricane are structured around a central eye, which is an area free of clouds and relatively calm.

Around this eye, clouds wrap in a counter-clockwise direction. This wall of clouds, wind, and rain, is the most destructive part of the storm. In fact, it is the wall that creates the eye, since the rapid spinning clouds in the wall reduce the pressure in the eye and suck out any clouds that may be there. Hurricanes are usually compact storms, with maximum wind velocities extending out from 7 to 80 mph from the eye. Of course, one can still experience gale-force winds as far way as three hundred miles from the eye.

An overview of a season sometimes helps to understand a particular event within a season. The 1909 Atlantic hurricane season for example began officially on June 1, 1909, and lasted until November 30, 1909. These are the dates that conventionally define the period of each year when most tropical cyclones form in the Atlantic basin. The 1909 season was an average but destructive season; eleven storms formed, of which six became hurricanes. Four of those hurricanes became major hurricanes with winds of greater than 111 mph. The season started early, with two tropical storms and a hurricane.

The first storm hit Nicaragua in mid-June and the second hit Texas as a category 2 hurricane near Brownsville. The third hit southeast Florida in late June. Activity continued through July, when a fourth, a tropical depression, formed over the southern Lesser Antilles in Mid-July. The storm attained tropical storm strength south of Jamaica, and reached hurricane strength near the western tip of Cuba. It ultimately hit near Freeport, Texas, on July 21 as a category 3 hurricane; with a ten-foot storm surge, this was the first test of Galveston’s seawall, built after the destructive 1900 hurricane. Damage came to $2 million and forty-one people died.

The fifth tropical storm of the season formed on August 6 and hit Mexico twice, first on the Yucatan Peninsula and then near the border between Veracruz and Tamaulipas. The sixth storm formed east of the Lesser Antilles on August 20. The storm went westward, hitting the Dominican Republic and Southeast Cuba. The storm strengthened to a category 3 hurricane and hit the Northeast corner of the Yucatan Peninsula; a transmission on the hurricane from a vessel near the Peninsula became the first “ship report” to be used in a forecast. After weakening, it regained strength and hit Tamaulipas as a major hurricane on August 27. The death toll from this storm was staggering. Floods and landslides killed an estimated 1,500 people. The seventh storm formed over the Bahamas on August 28, hit near Miami as a tropical storm, and went out to sea. The eighth storm formed south of Hispaniola on September 13.

It reached hurricane strength south of Cuba, and eventually hit southern Louisiana as a category 3 or 4 hurricane, making landfall at Grand Isle with a fifteen-foot storm surge. Warnings came to New Orleans before 1909 and even more after that date, reminding the city of its vulnerability to hurricanes long before the days of Katrina in 2005. A major hurricane hit the city in September of 1722, leveling many of the buildings in the young city. The year 1794 was perhaps as dreadful a year as the city of New Orleans ever experienced, as it was hit by two hurricanes in addition to a major fire.

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