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WHY NEW ORLEANS CAN ALWAYS COME BACK. “Noblesse Oblige" is why New Orleans can always "come back.” Such is the conclusion which I trust you will reach after having heard what LaHarpe and Pere de Charlevoix have to say regarding the storm of September, 1722, which wiped out New Orleans three years after its birth; and the description of the great fire which destroyed New Orleans in 1788, as given by Governor Esteban Miro and the Intendente Don Martin Navarro to Frey Don Jose Antonio Valdes, Secretary of State for the Colonies.
The founders of New Orleans, and its builders afterwards, were not weaklings. They were made of a steel that bends but does not break, built in the right way on the fairest land they could find, and with incomparable courage and perseverance laid the foundation for what we are to-day.
So, if the people of New Orleans and Louisiana have met the recent storm situation courageously, as they have every other crisis that went before, they have only lived up to their traditions. It is only another notable example of atavism to mark a spot in the road for which our forbears blazed the way so that those who came behind might be spurred to do better and greater things; not in vain defiance of the Almighty, or of the forces of Nature, but in order that their efforts might prove an inspiration to those who in their turn should follow them.
The descriptions of the storm are translated from “Le Journal de l'etablissement des Francais a la Louisiane" by La Harpe, and from the “Journal Historique d'un voyage fait par ordre de Roi dans l'Amerique Septentrionelle” by Father Charlevoix of the Society of Jesus, both of which books are the property of Mr. Cusachs.
That of the fire is a translation from the official report of Governor Miro and Intendente Navarro. The original Spanish copy is contained in one of the volumes of old public archives recently transferred from the City Hall to this Mu
seum. The document, as far as I know, and strange to say, has never been published by any of the historians who wrote so profusely about Louisiana.
But then let us see what LaHarpe and Charlevoix and Miro and Navarro have to say of those events which tried the souls of the Colonists of old, so that they might leave a standard which their posterity must maintain for the rest of time. LaHarpe says: “On the 11th of September a hurricane started which lasted until the 16th, the southeast wind veering south to southwest. This hurricane destroyed eight thousand quarts of rice, which was on the point of being harvested, without counting the destruction of the crops of beans and corn. Most of the houses in New Orleans were blown away, although the warehouse built by M. de Pauger was spared. The Saint Louis Warehouse was overturned to the entire satisfaction of the storekeepers, who were thus released from settling their accounts.
The ship “L'Espiduel,” three lighters, almost all the boats, yawls and pirogues perished. The ships "Neptune" and "Santo Cristo,” which were to be made ready for sea by order of the Royal Commissioners, were completely put out of service, and unfortunately a large quantity of artillery, lead and provisions which were in a vessel that had been beached near Biloxi, and which had been neglected for more than a year, were lost. In this circumstance great apprehension was felt for the vessels moored at Ship Island, and for the “Dromadaire,” which had been sent to New Orleans loaded with timber that had cost the company more than 100,000 livres.
On the 14th M. de Bienville sent a pirogue to the ship “L'Aventurier" that had already made sail on her return voyage to France. There were twenty-seven passengers on board, including M. Hubert. He (Bienville) wrote to the Commissioners to inform them that the hurricane had carried away half the rice crop, and asking for succors of provisions and particularly of meat. (Here I must stop to observe that though Bienville asked aid of the Commissioners, yet the Colony was undismayed and all things worked
normally, even unto the public executioner, for we find that on the 20th of September two thieves were hanged for having pilfered the warehouse of a certain Mr. Law.)
"On the 23rd instant, continues La Harpe, “news reached New Orleans that the “Dromadaire" had arrived at the mouth of the river, where it had resisted the hurricane without accident, which goes to prove that vessels may anchor there in perfect safety."
So much for LaHarpe, but let us now see what Pere Charlevoix has to say.
“On the 12th of September at 10 o'clock at night, a storm broke over the Mississippi, which lasted with full strength until noon on the following day, and made itself felt as far as Natchez on one side and on the other as far as Biloxi. The Church, Hospital, thirty houses, the Barracks of New Orleans were overturned, and all other buildings damaged. No one perished, but several sick persons were wounded in the Hospital. A quantity of boats, pirogues, canoes and launches were destroyed in the Fort. All the buildings on the plantations below and above New Orleans were blown away. Biloxi was even more roughly treated, and the sea, having overcome its margins, inundated a portion of this Port. The lighters that were in the harbour were thrown upon the Islands of the Continent. The Captain of one of them with an apprentice, spent 24 hours on the beach; the rest of the crew perished, and several pirogues on their way to New Orleans, laden with provisions and fowls, sank. The vegetables already matured were lost, and the continuous rains which followed ruined a large portion of those that had not yet ripened.” But continuing his journal, the Reverend Jesuit nonchalantly observes: “We are, nevertheless, still at war with the Chicachas; and, in fact, the savages were compelled to sue for peace.” Not so bad for a storm-stricken community.
The storm had partially wiped out the town, but they re-built it and incidentally found time to hang their criminals and fight Indians.
TENDENTE MARTIN NAVARRO ON THE FIRE
MARCH 21, 1788.
“At half past one in the afternoon the house of Don Vicente Jose Nunez, Paymaster of the Army, caught fire, reducing to ashes 856 buildings, comprising all the business houses and homes of the principal citizens of the city. The violent south wind which blew incessantly thwarted all attempts to extinguish the fire. The Parish Church and the house of the Priests have been included in the common misfortune, as also the greater part of the books. The Chapter House, the guardhouse, the arsenal, with all the arms therein contained, with the exception of 750 guns, have met the same fate. The public jail was also destroyed and there was barely time enough to save its miserable inmates.
“The customhouse, tobacco warehouse, the Government and Intendencia Buildings, the provision and Indian goods warehouses, that of the Artillery, the Royal Hospital, Ursulines Convent, the Barracks of the Dragoons and Permanent Regiment, and a few private buildings fronting the river, have been saved.
"As soon as we saw the progress of the fire, fanned as it was by the tenacity of the wind, and that the whole city was in evident danger, our principal efforts were directed toward evacuating the provision warehouse, the only source left for our common subsistence, occupying in its stead the Artillery Warehouse which had furnished a great deal of material for fighting the fire. All H. M. treasure in paper and silver was withdrawn from the Treasury and deposited on the banks of the river, not however, without the natural risks which such scenes of disorder and confusion create, and the papers of the accountants and secretaries were also saved without the loss of a single one.
“With the exception of the badly equipped Armory, the detruction of a small quantity of supplies, the loss of some
effects when the Artillery warehouse was evacuated and of a quantity of flour which had been made into biscuits, preparatory to being shipped to Natchez, and the house that had been purchased for experimenting with tobacco, the loss H. M. sustained is of small moment.
“Surrounded as we were by flames and without losing sight of the necessity of extinguishing the fire, we did not forget the danger which menaced us the following day on account of the scarcity of food and immediately adopted such measures as humanity suggested, so that man should not impose further sufferings upon the victims of this catastrophe, and most of the bakeries having been destroyed, we ordered that such biscuits as had been saved from the fire should be distributed to those who should apply for them.
"If it were possible for the imagination to represent what : the senses have seen and felt, it would surprise our reason, and it is not easy to assure whether we felt greater fear upon seeing the city in flames, or in the knowledge of the pitiful situation in which all its inhabitants were included. Mothers looked for nothing more than a refuge for their children, and abandoned the rest of their fortunes to the voracity of the conflagration, and having found a shelter, remained mute witnesses of their own calamities. Fathers and husbands endeavored to save as much as the rapidity of the fire would permit, yet such was their stupor that they hardly knew where to find secure places.
“Night momentarily removed the sight of so many misfortunes, but the dawn the following day brought a worse one, that of seeing along the road, crying and sobbing and in the most abject misery, so many families who, a few hours before, enjoyed considerable riches and conveniences.
Their cries, weeping and pale faces told of the ruin of a city which in less than five hours had been transformed into an arid and horrible wilderness; the work of seventy years since its foundation, its development and destruction are shown in the accompanying map.