Deadly hurricane took toll without warning
By Dave Rogers
For The Record
With modern storm forecasts for Tropical Storm Cindy being blasted out via 24-hour news and social media platforms, it’s hard to recall when storm warnings were few and far between.
Chuck Peterson remembers the time. So do Linda Garrett and Carl Thibodeaux.
Next Monday will mark the 60th anniversary of Hurricane Audrey hitting the Gulf Coast, June 26, 1957. The Category 4 storm made landfall just east of the Texas-Louisiana border and claimed more than 400 lives.
It caused nearly $150 million in damage. Its winds and heavy rains caused deaths as far north as Canada.
But it did its worst with the 15-20 feet of storm surge it pushed across Cameron, Louisiana, while many of its residents slept, practically wiping the fishing town off the map.
The only building left standing was the courthouse.
“That was a bad hurricane, because they had no warning,” said Garrett, office manager of the Heritage House. “They went to bed as usual and it came up in the night.”
Radar was in its infancy then, there were no weather satellites and many homes were still without televisions.
The storm, then called the worst to hit Orange County since 1865, knocked down trees, knocked out power and phone service and, for some, knocked out water service.
Two oil derricks in Orangefield were flattened. The Leo Bland home was divided by a falling tree, it was reported. Garages were blown down in Bridge City and 1,000 took shelter at West Orange school.
Early predictions from city and county government said it would take months to clean up the damage.
But there was little loss of life locally.
Gerald Bridges of Orange, a Gulf States Utilities worker, was killed when electrocuted by a downed power line. George Fox of Orangefield drowned.
“I was a 10th grader when that came through,” said Peterson, an Orange retiree. “We lived on Eighth and Cypress then. Dr. Wynne Pearce and his wife and my parents were best friends. They always got together at suppertime.
“That night, I walked outside, then I called my daddy and said, ‘I think we’ve got some bad weather.’ He walked outside, and by that time, it was blowing big-time.”
Peterson recalls Dr. Pearce being called to report to the hospital “because somebody had gotten hurt,” and that his dad volunteered to go pick up another doctor, whose car was blocked in his driveway by fallen trees.
“We had to go to Knotty Pine to pick up another doctor, and that’s when we found out about the hurricane. There were trees down everywhere.”
It wasn’t until the next day that the horror of Cameron became known, partly because so many here had family in southwest Louisiana.
Orange people pitched right in to help.
Thibodeaux, the Orange County judge who oversaw the area’s recovery from Hurricanes Rita (2005) and Ike (2008), was an 11-year-old Boy Scout in Lake Charles when he was asked to serve as a bike messenger for the first responders.
That job led him to a warehouse that was serving as a temporary morgue for bodies and body parts recovered from Cameron.
He took a peek.
“It was a mistake,” he told a Record Newspapers reporter in 2007. “I should have never done that because those images stay with you.”
Garrett and Peterson, both teenagers then, were spared the grisly sights. But they received first-hand reports.
“My uncle worked in the cleaning up after the hurricane with a crew operating a drag line,” said Garrett, who grew up in Mermantau, Louisiana. “It was terrible. Sometimes an arm would pop out. He couldn’t take it and quit.”
“I remember bodies were scattered all over the marshes,” Peterson said. “It was gruesome. We didn’t go down there.”
Among those who helped were Orange’s Claybar ambulance service.
Orange Police Chief Ellery Britt worked to help identify the bodies. Officers from the OPD and sailors from the U.S. Navy base in Orange worked the disaster site, as did a work crew of 35 from the Orange Civil Defense office.
Orange County Sheriff Chester A. Holts flew in a plane over the site, searching for survivors.
Local Red Cross workers volunteered in Lake Charles shelters and worked to connect Orange County residents with their Louisiana relatives.
The Salvation Army cared for evacuees at Stark High School. The Orange County Courthouse sheltered as many as 400. Orange churches operated as shelters, too.
The Orange Red Cross filled up a truck with more than two tons of bedding and clothes and sent it to victims sheltered in Lake Charles.
Many of the dead from Cameron were buried, unidentified, in mass graves in Lake Charles.
President Dwight Eisenhower sent the former chief of national Civil Defense to Louisiana and he reported back that Hurricane Audrey was the “worst in terms of local devastation and death” that he’d ever seen.
He said, however, “few – if any – people needed to die down there.”
He urged the installation of warning devices and that people needed to learn to go to shelters when warned.
Audrey currently ranks as the seventh deadliest storm in U.S. history.
It was an horrific outcome that few today could imagine, and Orange was largely spared by luck and geography.
“We were on the west side [of the storm],” Peterson said, “so we didn’t have near what they had.”
After that fateful June storm, he said, “We stayed alert.”