Fire Bigger Threat than Flood for New Orleans?


Fire Has Plagued New Orleans As Much As Floods

Note the areas along the Mississippi River, including the French Quarter, Did Not Flood in Katrina

On This Date in History:  Everyone knows that New Orleans is vulnerable to flooding.  The city is located in a very swampy region that is below sea level in several areas.  Oddly, the part of the city that is above sea-level and is less prone to high water is the oldest section, the French Quarter.  The reason is its location along the banks of the Mississippi River.  Over time, each time the river rose out of its banks, it deposited sediment and the banks slowly rose such that the highest elevation is found along the bank, particularly on the east side of the river where the river makes a bend from slightly northwest to slightly southwest.  This crescent shape is where the city gets the moniker “the crescent city.”  The higher elevation is precisely why the oldest part of the city is the least likely to flood because the French knew what they were doing when they established the city.   Flooding, therefore, may not be the biggest nemesis to the French Quarter.

Map of 1788 Fire in New Orleans

With buildings situated adjacent to one another and very few open spaces, fire is a big concern.  On Good Friday on March 21, 1788, a fire began in the home of Spanish Treasurer Don Vincente Nunez.  At the time, the Spanish were in control of the city.  In all likelihood, a cold front was approaching as the winds were rather blustery out of the southeast.  I would submit it was probably in advance of a warm front that preceded a cold front.  The fire at Nunez’s home began in the morning and the winds did nothing but increase as the day wore on, spreading embers quickly throughout the city.  Within hours, over 800 buildings had been burned to the ground.  Since there were only 1100 buildings in the city, that would be nearly 3/4 of the city including the town hall, rectory and church.  Governor Esteban Miro reported that there was “abject misery, sobbing and crying” and the faces of the citizenry  “told the ruin of a city which in less than five hours has been transformed into an arid and horrible wilderness; the work of seventy years since its foundation.”  Miro did not have FEMA trailers but, much as they have done in Haiti following the recent earthquake, the governor set up tents to house the homeless. 

Ursuline Convent 1900-Spared by Divine Intervention in 1788

Now, the fire of 1788 began at 619 Chartres Street which is at the corner of Toulouse.  That would be less than a block from present day Jackson Square.  That would lead one to assume that the church was the St. Louis Cathedral.  The current structure is really the third Roman Catholic church at the site.  The first was built in 1718 and was little more than a crude wooden structure.  It was replaced in 1725 by a more sturdy,  brick building that was complete in 1727.  It was the brick structure that went up in flames on this date in 1788.  Rather surprisingly, it was the buildings along the waterfront that escaped the destruction.  Left in tact by the fire included the Customs House, the hospital, the Ursuline Convent, the Governor’s Building and several tobacco warehouses.   It is said that Providence intervened on behalf of the convent because, as the fire approached, the wind suddenly shifted directions.   Perhaps it was the warm front or cold front.  Either way, the convent was spared and it was claimed Divine intervention had taken place.  If that were the case, why was the church not spared?  Perhaps there was Divine intent on building a new church. 

St. Louis Cathedral 1794

Anyway,  the Spanish went to work quickly rebuilding the city.  This time, they did not build with wood but instead built structures with thick brick walls, courtyards and arcades.  In 1789, work was begun rebuilding the church and it was complete in 1794.  The new church was designated as the St. Louis Cathedral and was opened on Christmas Eve 1794.   This time, perhaps there was Divine intervention or maybe it was due to not as many wooden buildings.  But, just a couple of weeks before the church opened, another fire swept the city, this time burning over 200 buildings to the ground.  Once again the waterfront buildings were left unscathed as were the same Customs House, tobacco warehouses, Royal Hospital, Governors Building and Ursuline Convent as in 1788.  While the cathedral survived, as time went on it needed some sprucing up and expansion.   In 1849, a contract was made with a Irish builder to enlarge and rehabiliate the building.  But, some walls collapsed as did the central tower and it was determined that many of the walls had to be replaced.  Effectively, the restoration project became one of reconstruction.  Snow White and I attended Christmas Eve Mass at St. Lous Cathedral this past Christmas but the building we were in essentially was the building of 1850. 

Spanish Governor Built This Canal in 1795 that connected river to Lake Ponchartrain

I think that there were also two hurricanes that struck New Orleans in 1794.  So, from 1788, the Spanish had suffered from two major fires and at least two hurricanes and esstentially had to twice rebuild the city.  Maybe they were tired of having to deal with such problems so far from home.  Or, more to the point, they no longer had the ability to do so.  By 1800, the Spanish had given New Orleans back to Napoleon and the French.  But, Napoleon didn’t hold it too long either.  He too was running out of money fighting his wars in Europe and could no longer control the Western Hemispherice territories.  There was a big slave rebellion and yellow fever epidemic in Santo Domingo and he lost 40,000 troops as a result.   

A Good Deal, Even Though It Was Unauthorized

Thomas Jefferson had sent his minister to France, Robert Livingston to buy New Orleans for $2 million.  Napoleon didn’t play ball so Tom made James Monroe as a special envoy to Napoleon and upped the ante to $10 million.   Then Napoleon threw a curve and offered up all of the French territory in North America for $15 million.  Monroe and Livingston jumped at the deal before Napoleon could change his mind.  Needless to say, Jefferson was surprised to get a bill for 50% more than he authorized and for enough land to double the size of the United States.    In the end, it was a good deal and as time went on, Uncle Sam found out what the Spanish had learned long ago: New Orleans his highly vulnerable to disaster.  Hurricane Katrina was a not-s0-pleasant reminder.  You can rest assured, another reminder of the risks involved with the Big Easy will arise again.

This cute puppy looks like the dog I called a mutt. Open mouth, insert foot.

Weather Bottom Line:  Kelsey’s picnic went very well with Snow White making lots of new friends and informing people of the good work of the Shamrock Foundation.  She had some people commit to provide some financial support and others say that they would look into the Shamrock Foundation for pet adoption.  For my part, I managed to offend a woman when I asked if her dog was a mutt.  She informed me that it was a full blood blonde lab.  She didn’t say too much more to me, but we stood in silence enjoying the weather.  I had a lady bug land on me and think it was great fun to show everyone around me.  Then I felt a sting and decided the lady bug bit me.  I tried to shoo him away but his nose seemed stuck to my wrist.  It was as if he had his tongue or mouth attached to my arm and the pain increased.  I was then informed that it was some sort of beetle that only looks like a ladybug and, yes, it is known to bite.

Sunday Evening

I informed folks at Dog Hill that Saturday was the last day for several days to really enjoy the spring, even though it just started.  A cold front will approach, we get rain and t’storms on Sunday with highs hanging around the 60 degree mark.  Not too enthused for severe chances.  Then, more rain Sunday night with lingering rain on Monday.  The low is really a cut off guy on Monday and so it will linger around and I bet we don’t get out of the 40’s.  While its a cut off low, it will have enough momentum to move on and out.  Sunshine returns in spots enough on Tuesday to push us toward 60.  The sun becomes more dominant on Wednesday and Thursday such that by Thursday afternoon we’re back toward 70.  Another front at the end of the week will bring down the mercury again along with bringing another risk for showers.
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