The wealthy always need an escape. Entire geographic locations are constructed with the promise of escape, of getting away—an archipelago built in remote locations, strung together by their promised atmospheres of seclusion. Megaresorts have bloomed like fungi on coasts across the world, Potemkin villages that function under the logic of excess and surrender. Everything is provided for and there is nothing to worry about. In 1850s Louisiana, the place of escape was Last Island.
Modern money is mobile, and the frontiers of escape have grown simultaneously broader and closer; it is not hard to travel to remote places, and it does not take as much time as it used to. But the wealthy of mid-1800s Louisiana were more geographically constricted. The wealthiest families were concentrated westwards of New Orleans along the German Coast, in vast sugarcane plantations dependent on slave labor. The families spent the winter social season in New Orleans, bouncing from one Mardi Gras ball to another. In the summer, desperate to escape the stagnant heat and terrified of the threat of yellow fever, they— and their New Orleans peers—went south to the coast.
Last Island was exactly that—the last barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico. Some 13 miles south of present-day Cocodrie, it was only accessible by a ferry, The Star. The Star sailed from Bayou Bouef and made the run twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. The island stretched for 21 miles and boasted white sand beaches and cooling Gulf breezes. There were individual vacation houses owned by wealthy families, who brought their slaves with them to cook, clean, and mind their children. A two-story resort hotel provided space for banquets and dancing.
On August 10th, 1856, the people on Last Island woke up to bad weather. The skies had been ominous the day before, and the winds stronger than usual, but most everyone had decided to remain on the island and continue their idylls. Over 400 people were on the island that morning, laborers and vacationers alike. Fierce waves rolled up the sandy beaches, the likes of which had never been seen. What had seemed an inconvenience yesterday was quickly proving to be far worse. As the wind, waves, and rain grew fiercer, anxious people began packing and making their way to the ferry.
But the headwinds were too strong, and The Star was late. When it did arrive, it ran aground and capsized on the beach. By mid-morning, the weather had driven most people indoors, just as the seas began to rise.
We tend to build on precarious places, and we pretend that precarious places are more safe than they are
The wind first took the roof off the house, and then the walls collapsed. The terrified residents clung to the remaining floorboards, “bending, cowering, at times prostrate on the floor. We gazed into each other’s faces with looks of despair.” McAllister and eleven others from the boarding house made their way to a playground atop a levee. There, they climbed onto a carousel. They spent the night with their arms and legs wrapped around the bars of the carousel, which spun violently in the wind.
The hurricane demolished every building on the island. Houses full of people were swept into the Gulf. The hotel (where many had gone to shelter) collapsed, crushing families, workers, and slaves. The storm surge began in the late afternoon, and water five feet deep inundated the island. Those who were not pulled into the Gulf by the tide were left wholly unprotected from the storm. The captain of The Star, Abe Smith, tied a rope between the shattered hull of the boat and himself. He waded into the waters and pulled people to safety, bringing them back to The Star. 40 people rode out the storm inside the broken ferry. They were still huddled there when help arrived two days later.
An estimated 320 people died on Last Island. The island itself did not survive the storm. It broke into five smaller islands, huge sections disappearing under the waves. Some survivors—and many bodies—floated into the marshes on Louisiana’s coast, a great deal not being found for days or weeks after the hurricane. Twelve people were found alive nearly two weeks afterwards, stranded in the marshes and living off of raw crabs and rainwater.
The storm could have been worse, though. Investors were meeting in New Orleans on the very day the storm hit, drawing up plans to build a giant resort on Last Island. The plans were abandoned since there no longer was a Last Island, just a collection of sandbars and marsh grass. Today, it serves as a rookery for pelicans and other sea birds. Given the rising seas, and the continued effects of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill on the coastal marshes, the remains of Last Island might not remain much longer.
We tend to build on precarious places, and we pretend that precarious places are more safe than they are. I once nearly drowned in the Gulf of Mexico, 12 years ago. I was with my friend Darin Acosta (with whom I now collaborate on a multi-media project called Airline Highway). It was late at night, and we went swimming into the waves on a deserted beach. We were pulled apart in a riptide and swept out to sea. I remember how terrifying it was, how little control I had, how strong the current was. I remember my hand reaching up, breaking through the crest of a wave, and being framed in the bright lights of a large beachfront hotel. I remember being horrified that the last thing I might see on earth was a hotel.
In its coverage of the Last Island Hurricane, the New Orleans Picayune wrote, “The list of the lost and the saved will show anybody acquainted with this State that there was gathered upon this little spot in the Gulf, at the time of the storm, a large representation of the wealth and intelligence of the best classes of the population of Louisiana. They made the barren sand-bank the seat of refinement and hospitality, where in a single day, almost in a single hour, death came in his most hideous form and swept one half of them into a nameless grave, and made the whole place desolate forever.” The glittering towers of South Beach, the expensive “eco-resorts” on impoverished tropical islands that cost hundreds of dollars a night to sleep in, the ever-expanding footprint of cute AirBnBs in gentrifying neighborhoods of New Orleans—these places of escape exist in vulnerable communities. The difference between them and Last Island is that the rich can decouple, can escape the disasters. They will most likely not perish along with the help.