Fifty years ago--on the night of June 26, 1957--residents of Cameron, Louisiana slept uneasily. Cameron, population 3,000, sat on the coast just above sea level, about 30 miles east of Texas. Hurricane Audrey roared across the dark waters of the Gulf of Mexico towards Cameron that night, lashing the coast with high winds and heavy rain. Many residents had heeded calls to evacuate from Audrey's 100 mph winds and predicted 5-9 foot storm surge that afternoon. But the old timers, familiar with how the surrounding dunes had protected Cameron in the past, stayed put. It was, after all, June, and severe hurricanes in June were almost unheard of. Besides, the storm was not expected to hit until the following afternoon, so there was still time to evacuate in the morning if things looked bad. The remarkable mass exodus of thousands of crawfish from the marshes surrounding Cameron that night apparently did not concern the old timers, who figured they had more sense than crawdads. But the crawdads could apparently sense what the old timers could not--sea surface temperatures were a full 2-3 degrees Fahrenheit above average in the Gulf of Mexico, with a large upper level anticyclone bringing near-zero wind shear over Audrey. This perfect recipe for rapid intensification meant that Audrey was not going to be a mere Category 2 hurricane at landfall. An additional ingredient unfavorable for intensification--the approach of a trough of low pressure with increased wind shear--would not occur in time to weaken the storm. However, the approaching trough did bring an increase in steering current winds at mid- and high levels of the atmosphere, which doubled the forward speed of Audrey overnight.


Figure 1. Radar image of Hurricane Audrey on June 27, 1957, a few hours before landfall. Image credit: US Air Force/NOAA.

Not everyone got the warning a hurricane was coming, since Cameron was isolated and didn't get good radio reception. Television sets were still too new to be commonplace. Those Cameron residents who were able to get the warnings saw this before they went to bed June 26:

NEW ORLEANS WEATHER BUREAU
HURRICANE WARNING AND ADVISORY NUMBER 7 AUDREY
10 PM CST JUNE 26 1957

CHANGE TO HURRICANE WARNINGS 10 PM CST O UPPER TEXAS COAST AS FAR SOUTH AS HIGH ISLAND. LOWER STORM WARNINGS EAST OF LOUISIANA TO PENSACOLA>

AT 10 PM CST...0400Z...HURRICANE AUDREY WAS CENTERED ABOUT 235 MILES SOUTH OF LAKE CHARLES LOUISIANA NEAR LATITUDE 27.0 LONGITUDE 93.5 MOVING NORTHWARD ABOUT 10 MPH. THIS MOVEMENT IS EXPECTED TO CONTINUE AND THE AREA FROM HIGH ISLAND TO MORGAN CITY IS EXPECTED TO BEAR THE BRUNT OF THIS HURRICANE THURSDAY.

HIGHEST WINDS ARE ESTIMATED 100 MPH NEAR CENTER AND GALES EXTEND OUT 150 TO 200 MILES TO EAST AND NORTH OF CENTER AND 50 MILES TO THE SOUTHWEST.

TIDES ARE EXPECTED TO REACH 5 TO 9 FEET FROM HIGH ISLAND TEXAS TO MORGAN CITY LOUISIANA AND 3 TO 6 FEET ELSEWHERE FROM FREEPORT TEXAS TO BILOXI MISSISSIPPI BY LATE THURSDAY. ALL PERSONS IN LOW EXPOSED PLACES SHOULD MOVE TO HIGHER GROUND. WINDS ARE INCREASING ALONG THE UPPER TEXAS AND LOUISIANA COASTS AND WILL REACH GALE FORCE TONIGHT AND EARLY THURSDAY.

HURRICANE WARNINGS ARE DISPLAYED ALONG THE ENTIRE LOUISIANA COAST AND ON THE UPPER TEXAS COAST AS FAR SOUTH AS HIGH ISLAND AND STORM WARNINGS AT GALVESTON. THE THREAT OF HURRICANE FORCE WINDS OVER SOUTHEAST LOUISIANA HAS LESSENED CONSIDERABLY.

NEXT ADVISORY AT 4 AM CST BULLETIN AT 1 AM CST.

CONNER WEATHER BUREAU NEW ORLEANS

Overnight, Audrey intensified rapidly, and more than doubled her forward speed from the 7 mph speed observed that afternoon. When residents of Cameron awoke on June 27, the escape routes had already been flooded by the storm surge. Audrey now packed top winds of 145-150 mph--an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane, the most powerful June hurricane on record. A massive storm surge of 12 feet swept through the bayous the morning of June 27, pushing inland over 25 miles. The final death toll will never be known, but it is thought 550 people--including over 100 children--perished in Audrey. It was America's deadliest hurricane disaster between the time of the New England Hurricane of 1938 (682 killed) and Hurricane Katrina of 2005 (1833 killed).

Comparison of Audrey and Rita
Why was Audrey so much deadlier than Hurricane Rita of 2005? Rita hit the same region of coast with weaker winds (Category 3, 115 mph), but a storm surge even higher (15 feet). Rita destroyed virtually 100% of Cameron, whereas Audrey destroyed 75% of the town. Nearly two years later, Cameron is mostly just concrete slabs and trailers, thanks to Rita. However, Rita caused only one direct death in Southwest Louisiana--a drowning in Lake Charles. The answer is preparedness. Rita was a massive Category 5 hurricane several days before landfall, giving people plenty of time to receive the warnings and evacuate. Warning systems are much better now than in 1957, and Cameron was deserted when Rita hit. But Audrey did something hurricane forecasters still fear could cause a high death toll in the future, despite our better warning systems--rapid intensification with a sudden forward speed increase overnight, bringing a much stronger hurricane to the coast far earlier than expected. If this nightmare scenario happens to one of our major cities in the future, another Audrey-like death toll could easily result.


Figure 2. Comparison of wind gusts from Audrey (1957) and Hurricane Rita (2005), which both hit the same region of coast. Image credit: NOAA.

Other Audrey links
The National Weather Service Lake Charles Office's 50th anniversary of Hurricane Audrey web page. They've got a nice SLOSH model animation of the storm surge, plus radar images and meteorological data.

The NOAA history web site has the story, "My Battle with Audrey", a graphic first-hand description of an Audrey survivor.

Nola Mae Ross has written a book about Hurricane Audrey. Here's the web site to buy the book from.

Wikipedia.

Remembering Audrey by Ron Thibodeaux, writer for the Times-Picayune newspaper.

Louisiana101.com has photos of the memorial at the mass grave where hundreds of Audrey's victims are buried. I found this memorable poem by student Lucas Lasha on the website:

In '57 she began with a roar
No one knew she was comin' ashore
Most people were asleep in bed
Not knowing they should have fled.

After the fury of the storm's huge eye
Families cried for members who did die
Lady Audrey would long be remembered
As the fateful day that Cameron surrendered

Jeff Masters