The south is known for its destructive hurricanes. Few have to be reminded that Louisiana seems to suffer the worst of them. The most recent was Hurricane Ida, a category 4 hurricane that made landfall on August 30, 2021, unleashed 172 mph winds upon southeast Louisiana and caused an overall $95 billion in damage. As of September 15, a total of 116 deaths have been confirmed in relation to Ida, including 96 in the United States and 20 in Venezuela. 30 of these deaths were reported in Louisiana.
When the pictures of the damage began to flood through social media, my heart hurt for the people inflicted by the storm. We have friends in New Orleans, and I feared for their safety – as some didn’t evacuate. As a historian, I was eager for any word from the museums and plantation homes along the Mississippi. Thanks to the magic of the internet, news came within the following days. Some historic sites received little damage, such as Houmas House and were able to reopen fairly quickly – or as soon as power and water was restored to their area. Others, like Whitney Plantation and St. Joseph’s incurred some structural and cosmetic damage. These plantation homes were built to last and the engineers often had the issue of inclement weather in the forefront of their minds during the design process. However, few can plan for the inevitable. The response of the employees and volunteers – many of whom struggled with their own losses – was heartwarming and inspiring. It’s been three weeks since the storm inflicted its wrath upon southeast Louisiana and they continue to cope with the devastation. Like Hurricane Katrina, I feel that Hurricane Ida will be one for the history books. Below, I’ve collected some before and after pictures of the damage, in case readers haven’t already seen them.
Oak Alley has grown as a historic site, doubling also as a bed and breakfast/inn with a restaurant on site. In recent years, their interpretation of the story of the enslaved on the plantation is admirable. Its infamous “Alley of Oaks” took a heavy hit from Hurricane Ida that will take a significant amount of time and care to restore. According to their Facebook, all of the historic oaks remain standing, but have suffered a heavy “pruning” from the high winds. The alley is much less shaded than it was, and it makes me wonder if tourism will be affected once they reopen, now that their main attraction has lost some of its glory.
For my blog post on Oak Alley, click here.
From what I have seen, Houmas House sustained the least damage along the River Road. According to their Facebook, the home was intact, boarded up before the storm, with a reasonable amount of fallen limbs, but nothing major. They, from what I can tell, were the first to open early this month. Featured below are the volunteer crews that helped to clean up the grounds, retrieved from their Facebook posts regarding the damage.
For my blog post on Houmas House, click here
Laura Plantation was the most recent of my plantation visits, and I was so glad to hear that their outbuildings were in tact – including their museum on the enslaved. I was most impressed by their tour, as it revealed the gritty and unpleasant aspects of running a plantation, full of family infighting and cruelty toward the enslaved. Laura Plantation and their staff do an excellent job of dissolving the sugarcoating from history with hard truths, backed up by primary sources from official records and the enslaved themselves. They reopened recently (September 17) and I look forward to journeying back for further research trips – once everything has returned to something resembling normal.
This one grieved my soul the most. Like Laura Plantation, Whitney Plantation has dedicated itself to telling the story of the enslaved and educating its visitors of the hard truths that have been ignored or swept under the rug. Not much has been publicized, but the damage to the church at Whitney Plantation has been shared on their Facebook page. For the newly emancipated African American communities of the south, the church represented the new opportunities afforded to them. The freedom to assemble, to practice the religion of their choice, and to educate themselves (as many churches doubled as schools in some small communities) were paramount in the construction of their new identities as free people. The church sustained a great deal of damage, but I found it poignant that one of Woodrow Nash’s sculptures – an artful depiction of enslaved children scattered throughout the River Road plantations – remained in place through the destruction. The symbolism is powerful and I eagerly wait for more news about the restoration of the site.
For more information about Whitney Plantation, click here.
St. Joseph Plantation
Unlike the other plantations in this post, I have yet visited St. Joseph. It was next on my list before news of the hurricane arrived. In fact, I had planned to visit the Friday immediately following landfall – if Ida hadn’t wrecked my plans along with a quarter of Louisiana. However, I do follow them on Facebook. They are closed until further notice and some of the “Big House” was damaged. The cleanup crew stayed positive in the midst of the tragedy, and I had to giggle at their attempt to lighten the mood.
Equally as disheartening as the damage to the surrounding historic sites is the damage to the French Quarter in Louisiana. Pictures of the flood waters, fallen trees, and massive amounts of debris are all over the news and internet if one cares to scroll through Google Images.
One that I found distressing was posted by Civil War Tours of New Orleans recently. In the caption of the following images, they posted “Sadly, during Hurricane Ida, a very large and old magnolia tree that stood at the corner of Jackson Square at Decatur Street and St. Ann Street, fell and in doing so crushed some original park benches that have been in the Square since the 1850s. You can see the damage along with a photo of men sitting on the same bench in 1864.”
Through it all, the people of Louisiana – indeed, the people of the South – remain strong in the face of adversity. Call it courage or arrogance, but Americans do have a knack for picking themselves back up, dusting off, and moving onward.