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Hurricanes: Science and Society
1856- Last Island Hurricane

The Last Island Hurricane was the first tropical cyclone, first hurricane, and first major hurricane of the 1856 Atlantic hurricane season. It was initially observed on 8 August 200 km (125 mi) west-northwest of Key West, Florida. As the storm was recorded as a hurricane at first observation, it most likely developed further west. Moving northwestward, the hurricane rapidly intensified to a Category 3 hurricane. The storm’s forward motion slowed on 10 August just before making landfall, allowing it to reach a peak intensity of 934 mbar with 240 km/h (150 mph) winds (maximum sustained winds may have reached Category 5 status, but were unrecorded). During the evening of 10 August, the hurricane made landfall as a Category 4 storm on Last Island, Louisiana (southwest of New Orleans). After landfall, the storm quickly diminished, weakening to a tropical storm by the next day and then dissipating over southwestern Mississippi on 12 August.

The hurricane had a great impact on coastal Louisiana. The city of New Orleans was inundated with more than 330 mm (13 in) of rain. Last Island, a popular resort destination at the time, was completely decimated by the hurricane. The barrier island was originally one contiguous island, approximately 40 km (25 mi) long and 1.6 km (1 mi) wide. As a result of the hurricane (and several other subsequent storms) Last Island was fragmented into a small island chain, known today as L'Îsles Dernières (Last Islands).

At the time, storm prediction and identification was not advanced enough to give the island’s residents much warning. Although people noted signs of an advancing storm, by the time they realized its magnitude, it was too late. The hurricane’s 3.4-3.6 meter (11-12 ft) storm surge destroyed all 100 homes on the island. There were about 400 people on the island during the hurricane- fewer than half survived. Now the island(s) are only home to pelicans and other seabirds.

Fast Facts:

  • The highest points of Last Island were under 1.5m (5 ft) of water due to the storm surge. The island reportedly stayed submerged after the storm, resurfacing several days later as large sandbars. Following the storm, the remains of the Star, the steamship that serviced the island, were the only sign that a populated island had ever existed.
  • A story, potentially a legend, exists regarding the circumstances of the deaths of those on the island when the hurricane struck. It is said that people on Last Island were mesmerized by the “fantastic waves” created by the hurricane. Ignoring the indications that disaster would occur, they “danced to their deaths” at a ball in the only lavish hotel on the island. The steamship that was to save them (the Star) was late and actually ran aground during the storm. It is said some survivors saved themselves by climbing aboard the wreck.


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“Last Island, Louisiana.” Wikipedia. 2009. Web.

Sallenger, Abby. Island in a Storm: A Rising Sea, a Vanishing Coast, and a Nineteenth-Century Disaster that Warns of a Warmer World. New York: Perseus, 2009.

“The Most Intense Hurricanes in the United States 1851-2004.” National Hurricane Center. 2004. Web.

Roth, David. “Louisiana Hurricane History.” National Weather Service. 2010. Pp17.

Corley, Linda G. Buried Treasures. Houma, Blue House Publications. 2004. Pp 293.