NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - We love to compare hurricanes and although each storm is different we learn more about protecting ourselves with each one. September 19th marks the anniversary of an often forgotten storm that made a major impact. A break in the 17th Street Canal; thousands of flooded buildings; standing water in neighborhoods for weeks. These phrases all bring Katrina to mind, but this storm hit almost 60 years before.
"We always remember the last storm as our benchmark and it's difficult for us to go back and remember that there were storms that occurred prior even to hurricane Betsy and of course one of the bigger ones was the 1947 hurricane," according to Mark Scheflestein. After more than 30 years as the environmental reporter for NOLA.com Times Picayune, Scheflestein lived through many big storms and analyzed how they've impacted the region.
Lauralyn Wright lived through the 1947 storm at thirteen and it haunts her still. She said, "You're asking me questions that I'm realizing how that storm did affect me. I never thought about it before."
Wright grew up in Bucktown. She said, "It was a very rural place. We lived in a house on the 17th Street Canal."
A small community disconnected from the big city of New Orleans. "When we went to town we had to walk about a mile and catch a bus or a street car and New Orleans was like a different place," reflected Wright.
She has many wonderful memories. She said, "We would have a $1, we'd spend seven cents on bus fair and we would have enough money for two movies and we would eat at Krystal hamburger. Twelve cents a-piece for a sandwich."
The memory that stands out most is one of the worst. The wind and rain was already coming down when the family headed to east end school. Wright said, "The officials came out and told us to leave. To leave before it got bad, but my mother wouldn't leave and when she finally decided to leave that was the only place that they would take us was to the school."
The hurricane blew through south Florida and the Bahamas at Category 4 strength leaving behind deaths and massive destruction before heading into the Gulf of Mexico towards Louisiana. Wright said, "I cried and I cried because I was scared to death."
Wright was inconsolable. She said, "My mother's friend said 'Shut her up. Make her sleep and stop crying.' and my mother couldn't stop me from crying."
There was good reason to be afraid.
A good school friend of Wright never made it to safety. Wright said, "Eleanor was her name."
Her entire family died in the storm. Wright said, "(They were) headed down Hammond Highway. There was a big wave. . .I guess like a tidal wave. All the family got. . .They couldn't. . .They drowned."
One of Wright's uncles found two of the four bodies another wasn't found for months. "Thanksgiving day of that same year they did find the mother...that was September . . . October...more than two months they found her body up in a tree."
Wright remembers the destruction the storm left behind. She said, "All the houses that were say three blocks from the lake they were all washed up into one pile about five blocks way up in the woods.
Scheflestein said, "When this storm came in this also was one of the interesting storms because it showed the danger of Lake Pontchartrain."
Today we have the sophisticated hurricane risk reduction system with gates and locks helping to keep the water out with these very high levees. In 1947 those didn't exist. It was a system of private levees across most of the area. Jefferson Parish actually didn't have a levee much higher than the height of old Hammond Highway.
According to Scheflestein, "The Metairie levee was basically non-existent at the time. It was a berm along the lakefront."
Lake water flooded as many as 12,000 homes in Old Metairie. Pictures from the Times-Picayune put the distance in perspective with people being taken out in row boats from the 200 block of Helios and the 500 block of Hesper. This is south of I-10 today.
"The corps of engineers estimated that there was about 30 square miles of Metairie that was flooded," said Scheflestein.
A category two storm at its St. Bernard Parish landfall with recorded winds of 110 miles per hour.. it's one of the only storms to have an eye go directly over the metro area in recorded history. The brand new Moisant Field now Armstrong International Airport suffered two feet of water on the runways and saw its anemometer break after recording 90 mile per hour winds.
Scheflestein said, "You started very quickly after that storm having levees under design and development for the Metairie lakefront."
Each major storm helps make things better. Scheflestein said, "The Army Corps of Engineers did a study of the entire Gulf Coast to determine what the risk of a catastrophic hurricane and they came up at that time with an estimate of about $180 billion dollars of potential damage from a 100 year storm which is not even a hurricane Katrina."
Today many thousands more are at risk. "The rarest events are the ones that cost the most money for us and could be a real problem both for us and for the nation," said Scheflestein.
Mrs. Wright did get one good lesson in all the bad. She said, "I learned that people will help you when you really need it and everybody seemed to work together."
A lesson we've seen in practice all too recently and we will likely see again as we chronicle the trials and triumphs of natural disasters along the Gulf. Fifty one people died, twelve in Louisiana and the storm caused 100 million dollars in damage at the time in the New Orleans area. Adjusted for inflation that would be tens of billions of dollars today.