Warning Worked as Temperature Plummeted
According to the old adage, “If you don’t like Louisiana weather, just wait; it will change.”
But sometimes Mother Nature takes things to ridiculous extremes, like she did 112 years ago. The story was not how cold it got—frigid weather was still ahead—but how fast the thermometer plummeted.
The New Orleans Daily Picayune reported this on Sunday, December 15, 1901:
THIRTY DEGREES FALL IN A SINGLE DAY
And The Weather Bureau Predicts Still Colder Today
The Wave Being Due to Strike This Morning
And Cavort Around Here a Day at Least
With Timely Warning the Crops are Safe and the People Should be Prepared for Warmth
“As predicted by Dr. [Isaac] Cline, the local forecaster, a wave of cold air swooped down upon southern Louisiana yesterday, and as the hours sped by the weather grew steadily colder, until by night time the temperature was below 50 degrees — quite a difference between that figure and the record of the previous days, 80.
“All farmers and stock raisers in the west gulf district were warned in ample time by the weather bureau — at least twenty-four hours in advance — so that they were able to take the necessary precautions against low temperatures.
“The sugar planters were told Friday morning that the weather would decidedly change and that on Sunday morning the temperatures would be about 25 degrees. Further warning was sent yesterday that the temperature would be still lower by 5 degrees on Monday morning. These warnings have enabled sugar planters to windrow their cane crop which was standing in Louisiana and Texas at the time the warnings were issued. Advices have been received by the weather bureau that the sugar planters, placing implicit reliance in the forecasters, set to work without delay to windrow their cane. The value of such accurate and timely warnings cannot be estimated and the forecasts and warnings of the weather bureau have received the highest commendation for its splendid work in the interest of the public.”
The planters had not always placed “implicit reliance” on forecasts, and with good reason.
Cline, who had been stationed in Galveston in 1900, had done nothing to help his own credibility when he famously declared that the idea of a major hurricane doing damage on that island was “crazy.” That was just before a storm swept the island in what is still regarded as the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.
It had only been a decade before that weather forecasters began to worry about the planters as much as the military. The weather bureau was created by Congress in 1870 to “provide for taking meteorological observations at the military stations in the interior and at other points in the States and Territories”
The Army Signal Corps was in charge of disseminating forecasts until 1891, when the bureau was transferred to the U.S Department of Agriculture, which began issuing “crop and weather reports,” as opposed to simple weather data.
Cline was director of the gulf coast regional center that was established at Galveston in 1891. He moved to New Orleans in 1901 when the center was transferred after the storm devastated the island.
He and other forecasters gained in believability before he retired in 1936, largely because of improvements in communications, particularly as telegraph wires began to stretch into the countryside, in Louisiana running along railroads that linked rural communities.
Before radios were common the railroad station was the place to keep watch on the weather. Regional forecaster such as Cline telegraphed warnings to the railroad stations and station masters posted warning flags.
We’ve all seen the red flag with a black square in the middle that warns that a hurricane is on the way. It is a holdover from those days. At one time there was a whole system of flags to warn not only of wind storms, but also of such things as freezes that could damage crops.
Word of mouth spread the news throughout the countryside and, as in this instance, planters got the word in time “to windrow cane crops,” protecting them from the biting chill.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.