Laura strongest Louisiana hurricane in modern era

Published 7:00 am Saturday, August 29, 2020

By Skip Rigney

The National Hurricane Center estimated that Laura’s maximum sustained winds were 150 miles per hour as it moved ashore in Cameron Parish, Louisiana, around 1 a.m. Thursday. That makes Laura the strongest hurricane to make landfall in Louisiana in the era of instrument-measured winds.
As Laura approached the coast, NOAA and Air Force reconnaissance aircraft estimated wind velocities by launching dropsondes and tracking their movement as they parachuted downward. Also, a radiometer aboard each plane measured microwave energy emitted from the sea surface. The higher the wind speed the more foam there is on the ocean surface, which increases the amount of microwave radiation emitted.
Wind speeds are measured more directly on land, ships and buoys via a variety of types of anemometers. So far, the highest sustained speed (which means a one-minute average) reported from an anemometer is 108 mph in the north eyewall at Calcasieu Pass on the coast 30 miles south of Lake Charles. Gusts of 127 mph were measured at Calcasieu Pass and 133 mph at Lake Charles.
Laura’s 150 mph sustained winds probably came ashore in the northeastern eyewall 5-25 miles east of Calcasieu Pass along a stretch of sparsely populated coastline. That’s also probably where the maximum storm surge of 15-20 feet occurred. It will take several weeks for data to become public from a number of portable anemometers deployed ahead of the storm. Whether any were in the right place to capture the maximum winds isn’t yet known.
Winds close to 150 mph could have hit lower Plaquemines Parish when Camille skirted to the east in August 1969 and probably exceeded 150 mph that night on Louisiana’s uninhabited Chandeleur Islands. But, only one other hurricane has moved onshore in Louisiana with winds perhaps as strong as Laura’s: the Last Island Hurricane in August 1856.
Often referred to by its French name, Isle Dernière, the sandy barrier island sat forty miles south of Houma and five miles offshore from the southern edge of the vast marshes that make up southern Terrebonne Parish.
Unlike the marshy islands to its north, Isle Dernière provided access to white, sandy beaches and sparkling clear Gulf waters. It’s little wonder that by the 1840s entrepreneurs had built a resort that catered to some of Louisiana’s wealthiest families. In addition to a posh hotel and several gambling venues, there were between 25 and 100 vacation cottages and houses.
Approximately 400 vacationers were on the island on August 10, 1856. Without satellites, radar, or even radio to communicate with ships in the Gulf, there was no way to know that a hurricane was on their doorstep.
As winds and waves increased, some people crowded aboard steamers and schooners in an attempt to escape to the mainland. Soon the storm surge was cutting the island into three pieces. Nearly 200 people died.
There were no anemometers to measure wind speed on Isle Dernière, but based on barometer readings and the reported damage, experts in historical reconstruction estimate the maximum sustained winds were 150 mph.
The tragedy inspired an 1889 novella, “Chita: A Memory of Last Island,” which was republished by University Press of Mississippi in 2003.
More recently two books offer nonfiction accounts of the catastrophe, “Island in a Storm” by Abby Sallenger and “Last Days of Last Island” by Bill Dixon.

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