Heart of Louisiana: 1812 Hurricane

Updated: Aug. 18, 2020 at 9:47 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - A university researcher has constructed a two-century old hurricane that may have been the worst-case track when it pounded a young city of New Orleans.

August 19 marks the anniversary of the great Hurricane of 1812.

1812 was a year of turmoil across a young United States. America was once again at war with the British. The middle of America was rocked by a major earthquake breaching Mississippi River levees. There were slave revolts. And in August, New Orleans was the bullseye of perhaps its strongest hurricane ever.

“It landed just like west, a little bit to the south and west if New Orleans, about 40 miles. And that’s when you would get the strongest onshore winds and potentially a very strong storm surge,” says Dr. Cary Mock, a geographer at the University of South Carolina.

Mick digs through historical records to reconstruct major hurricanes.

How on Earth do you reconstruct a 200-year-old hurricane.

“You pretty much have to be like a historian and go out and go to the archives and get as much data as you can. And try to put a puzzle together of various different types of sources,” says Mock.

For the 1812 New Orleans hurricane, Mock found old newspaper stories, ship protests and ships’ weather reports.

“It was the War of 1812. So they had a lot of ships around.”

One of those sailing ships that made frequent recordings was the USS Enterprise.

“It was at New Orleans because the British ships blockaded it and they couldn’t get out. So we’re lucky in the sense that we have the Enterprise that were recording conditions right at New Orleans,” says Mock. “Because of the rise of the river, they just pretty much smashed into each other and to levees. And I think there was about 60 ships and I think about 55 of them were completely destroyed.”

There is another account of the 1812 hurricane in the archives of the historic New Orleans collection. A letter written by Frenchman Louis de Tousard to a woman in France.

“And at the time of the Summer of 1812, he was the French counsel to New Orleans,” says Cecilia Hock.

Hock translates his first-hand account of that great storm.

“He talks about the waters of the lake coming together with the waters of the river. And that together though the waters competed to cover all of this land houses, buildings, men, animals, et cetera, with other 10 feet of water, very reminiscent of what happened during Katrina,” says Hock. “And that last line for me is the most powerful, because he’s saying if it had lasted two more hours, I wouldn’t be writing this to you. There would be no one to tell the news of the storm.”

Using wind speed and direction records from ships, the hurricane apparently approached the Louisiana coast near the mouth of the Mississippi River and then passed just west of New Orleans, a worst-case path.

What have you figured out about the intensity of the 1812 hurricane?

“I was always trying to be conservative. I knew it was a major hurricane. With the storm surge being as big as I think it was in 1812 and a relatively small size, the winds had to really be high. So I think it was, it’s safe to say, I think now it’s a category four,” says Mock.

It was a devastating hurricane that predates Katrina by nearly two centuries and an example of how a hurricane and history can repeat itself.

Dr. Mock estimates the loss of life from the 1812 hurricane was in the hundreds.

To view Dr. Mock’s research on the 1812 hurricane, click here.

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