Tuesday, November 10, 2009

ISLAND IN A STORM


A few years ago, I put an idea on the drawing board for a novel about Last Island, or Isle Derniere, once a small island on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, located about 100 miles from New Orleans. However, after reading the masterful account, CHITA, by Lafcadio Hearn, I discarded the idea. Last Island was once a resort community before being completely destroyed by a hurricane in 1856, and Hearn published his novel about the hurricane and its survivors in 1889. In 1980, Louisiana author James Sothern published a non-fiction account of the hurricane and the devastation of the island in a book simply entitled LAST ISLAND, but I hadn’t read any other accounts until I walked into Books Along the Teche in New Iberia recently and found two books about Last Island displayed on the checkout counter. The one I bought is entitled ISLAND IN A STORM by Abby Sallenger, and I think that it deserves the Louisiana Book of the Year award.

Author Sallenger has a B.A. in Geology and a PhD. In Marine Science and is a former chief scientist of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Center for Coastal Geology. He combines history and environmental facts in an account that is compelling reading. I found ISLAND IN A STORM to be a page turner, and it certainly convinced me that I didn’t need to write a book about Last Island. I have little to add to the story of that disaster and certainly know nothing about the case he presents about environmental concerns.

Following the hurricane that hit the island and by the end of the summer of 1856, Isle Derniere, which had been a two-hundred-yard wide strip of sand on its Gulf side, fringed by marsh on its bay side, became totally uninhabited, devoid of homes and hotel, except for a forest standing in the surf. Trees had been reduced, and the island had been broken in half. According to Sallenger, between the 1890’s and 1988, Isle Derniere retreated landward about two-thirds of a mile and lost three quarters of its surface area.

The tragedy of Isle Derniere is twofold: loss of human life and coastal erosion. At one time, the island boasted an exclusive summer resort that attracted wealthy planters and merchants; it was a place where they escaped the dreaded yellow fever epidemics that occurred during humid Louisiana summers in New Orleans and other Louisiana cities. Four hundred inhabitants were on the island when the hurricane struck without warning. The island was known for unrivaled fishing and sea bathing, and many of the summer visitors stayed at the Last Island Hotel where they could enjoy a bar, billiard and bowling saloons, and a livery stable. The beaches of hard-packed sand provided good walking and buggy riding terrain, and “The Table” was supplied with choice delicacies, including fresh catches from the Gulf, for the palates of the wealthy.

On an August night in 1856, residents of Last Island had been dancing until midnight in Muggah’s Hotel when the wind and rain began to pelt the island. “The water from the bay rose incessantly into what was left of the hotel and drove the remaining inhabitants into irrational flight,” Sallenger writes. Shrapnel pierced the crowds of disoriented people milling around and everything began to fly through the air – chairs, tables, books, and glassware. Some of the island’s inhabitants were impaled by planks and dismembered. Then the water began to rise, and the dual assault of wind and rising water took the lives of almost 200 people. When rescuers arrived, they found bodies sprawled in the sand, arms and legs strewn about, a woman, almost buried with just her “jeweled hand … protruding from the sand…”

Sallenger researched newspaper articles, letters, diaries, and interviews to recreate the narrative of this disaster, telling about the course of the hurricane as experienced by real-life characters like Emma Mille, a young woman who was treated and cared for by New Iberian Dr. Alfred Duperier . Four months later, Dr. Duperier married his patient and brought her home to New Iberia to the large manor house north of Bayou Teche. At the age of 98, she was able to give an account of the hurricane to a reporter from the New Orleans “Times Picayune.”

Sallenger’s account of an island storm also serves as a warning tale about global warming and the vulnerability of coastal locations. He relates how storms have a continuously-eroding impact on low-lying areas along the Gulf Coast. It’s interesting to note that he reports Last Island has never been rebuilt, whereas Dauphin Island, hit by hurricanes in 1979, 1985, 1998, and 2005, has been rebuilt four times in 29 years. Holly Beach, which was wiped out during Hurricane Audrey in 1957, damaged by hurricane Carla in 1961 and every structure destroyed in 2005, then was inundated in 2008, has been rebuilt again and again. Despite sediment starvation and sea level rises, humans doggedly rebuild structures on the sandy coasts of the Gulf…except for Last Island, which, ironically, lives up to its name.

This is a brief review of ISLAND IN A STORM, and for those who like a good read about historical events, the prose is elegant and fast-moving. Abby Sallenger tells a more than 150 year old story brilliantly. Not only does he spin a good historical tale, he inspires some deep thinking about the future of our fragile coastline.

A Postscript to ISLAND IN A STORM: My old friend, James Wyche, Jr.(now deceased) of Belmont Plantation, once replied to a column I wrote about Last Island with a “Post 1856 Narrative of Last Island,” in which he told the story of his father and a friend, Tom Henderson, making a trip to Last Island in the early 1890’s. It seems the young men had been crossed in love and decided to get away from “it all” and return to a “primal state,” as Jimmy described the experience. They chartered a lugger in Morgan City and were left on Last Island with a few possessions, minimal provisions, a barrel of drinking water, and a tent. They told the boatman to return in a month to pick them up! In the meantime, they planned to live on fish, crabs, oysters, primarily seafood. “Papa said some of the oysters had shells almost the size of soup plates,” Jimmy wrote. To catch fish, Jimmy’s father and his companion waded into the shallow inlets to lagoons and seized fish with their bare hands. About the time their transportation disappeared, they discovered their drinking water had been placed in an empty, untreated, and uncharred whiskey barrel and was unfit for human consumption. The men discovered rain water had soaked through the sand until it reached the level of the greater density sea water underlay and rode on top of it. By making a hole in the sand, the men found fresh water, uncontaminated by salt. The water had the taste of some plant and carried an unusual flavor, but they drank it. Although Jimmy’s father and Tom Henderson had been lifelong friends, they grew tired of each other on this deserted island, and they’d take walks, one to the east and the other to the west, to keep the relationship intact. Jimmy ends this island saga with a story about the men varying their table fare with a pelican. They shot one, prepared the meat from it in steak form, and roasted the steaks over an open fire. However, when the food had cooked, the odor was so overwhelming, they “abandoned their project,” as Jimmy reported. In 1930, Jimmy’s father took him to Last Island, and he was able to see the exact spot of the island idyll.

Drawing by Paul Schexnayder from my Young Adult book, THE KAJUN KWEEN
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