CAMERON PARISH - With the eyes of the Gulf Coast keeping watch on Tropical Storm Debbie (which has since been lowered to a tropical depression) this past weekend, the older residents of southwestern Louisiana - especially in Cameron Parish - are remembering Hurricane Audrey which hit this week in 1957 and was one of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history.
Fifty-five years ago, meteorological technology was obviously not as advanced as it is today. Residents of Cameron Parish were aware that a possible hurricane was churning in the Gulf of Mexico but were told that the storm was still three to four days away from making landfall.
“I was nine-years-old when Audrey hit,” said Glenda Nunez, who still resides in the small town of Johnson Bayou in Cameron Parish.
“I remember my parents saying that we may have to leave and head north in a couple of days. When we went to bed that night (June 26, 1957) we weren’t too worried about the storm...we just didn’t know what was about to hit us.”
What the Nunez family and nearly everyone else along the Cameron Parish coast were unaware of was that Hurricane Audrey would knock out communications along the Louisiana/Texas border area as it picked up strength and raced towards a direct hit on Cameron Parish.
The storm eventually hit the shore of Louisiana’s largest, yet among its most sparsely populated parishes.
By the time Audrey had left, it had killed 500-plus people and destroyed 60-80 percent of the homes in Cameron Parish.
Tornados from the storm reached as far east as New Orleans and as north as Alexandria.
However, it is the residents of Cameron Parish that will forever be connected to Hurricane Audrey. In fact, according to Nunez, older residents of the parish still divide their lives into two chapters - “before and after Audrey.”
“What I remember most was my father grabbing me out my bed and bringing the entire family up into the attic,” said Nunez. “I’ll never forget the water that came into our house and the way it felt when our home was removed from its foundation and the house moved about 30 yards inland.”
Many people were simply swept away. Eighteen people in a single family perished when their home was knocked down and washed away.
Some survived by by tying themselves to tree tops, others by clinging to driftwood. At least one person died from the bite of a poisonous snake while clinging to wreckage.
Many bodies were not found for months after the hurricane -- including one that was not recovered until the next year.
“Oh, and the snakes,” said Nunez. “The snakes were everywhere. When my father finally got us into a boat that was passing and was bringing people to a safe area. I remember him trying to distract me by telling me to look at other random things so we wouldn’t see the snakes that were swimming beside the boat but I saw them anyway.
“That scene was really something. If you take a boat about a mile offshore and do some diving you will still find cars, boats and even parts of an oil rig that capsized offshore.”
Louisiana was not the only place that suffered Audrey’s wrath. A building in Port Arthur, Texas, collapsed under heavy rain and wind.
As far away as Canada, four people lost their lives at the tail end of the storm over a week later. More than 40,000 people were left homeless by Hurricane Audrey. Many were housed at McNeese State University until they could be permanently resettled.
Many victims found it difficult to rebuild – their insurance offered financial protection from wind damage, but not water damage.
Unlike after Hurricane Rita, which struck the same area in 2006 with nearly the same strength and intensity as Audrey, most of the surviving residents moved back to the area that they had grown up in to help rebuild the small towns along the Cameron Parish shores.
“When Rita hit a few years ago, even though it caused nearly as much damage, very few people died,” said Nunez. “A lot of people say it was because the warning systems have gotten better which is true, but the memory of Audrey from the people who experienced it was definitely a factor as well.”
“Most of the people that had homes and fishing camps in the area didn’t come back after Rita...not even to clean up their places,” she added.
“When we were allowed to come back after Audrey all of our neighbors were outside cleaning up. A very strong bond still exists among the people who survived.”
Though the death toll was so high, Glenda Nunez recalls only two people from her neighborhood who died. She concedes that may be due to the fact that she was a child and her father didn’t want to upset her anymore than she already was.
“I can remember seeing that he was upset but he kept telling us that everything was going to be O.K.,” he said. “It took a while for us to rebuild and we lost nearly all the things that were on the first floor of our home.
“But we survived...a lot of people didn’t; most of the ones that did are still living in this area. Our little corner of the world is all we’ve ever known.”