When Forbes magazine reported that New Orleans flattened the coronavirus curve like no other city in the country, New Orleans, once again, found themselves filled with a sense of pride. The “remarkable recovery” of The Crescent City came as no surprise to me as Forbes reported on May 19, 2020, that New Orleans had gone “three days without a coronavirus death.” Those three days then lead to five days as the city stomped on the invisible enemy that put the entire country on a mandatory lockdown, citing public health advisories.
How did The Big Easy turn it all around?
A history of experience in such matters is the key. New Orleans has faced invisible enemies such as malaria, cholera, smallpox, yellow fever, Spanish Flu, and even the bubonic plague in its 302 years.
New Orleans was founded as a French Colony, Nouvelle Orleans, in 1718. Early settlers and slaves fell victim to malaria, which flourished in the sub-tropical, almost jungle climate of what would become Louisiana. Mosquitoes were the culprit and would also be to blame for much death later, even in Louisiana’s modern history. To this day, we use insect repellent so much that it has become a summer cologne or perfume here in Louisiana.
When most Americans think of New Orleans and “devastation,” Hurricane Katrina comes to mind. However, yellow fever was the single worst devastation to ever happen to New Orleans. And it didn’t just happen all at once. New Orleanians at one time feared “yellow fever season” just as they now take precautions during “hurricane season.” The threat was more substantial than any hurricane at the time. It was reported that yellow fever killed over 41,000 people in New Orleans. The worst day in the city’s history would have been the day that over 300 people succumbed to yellow fever in a twenty-four-hour period in 1853. The worst years for New Orleans’ yellow fever outbreaks surfaced in 1853, 1858, 1867, and 1878. During this time, New Orleanians would often evacuate during the summer months to what is considered “The Northshore” across Lake Pontchartrain in Old Mandeville and Covington, where folks from the city had their summer homes and cottages for the purpose of leisure and escaping the creeping death of yellow fever. In fact, the 1878 outbreak, which killed 4,000 folks, would force New Orleans city officials to rethink their infrastructure and sanitation measures altogether. Yellow fever ravaged New Orleans from one century into the next, from 1817 to 1905.
During this same time of Yellow Fever in New Orleans, cholera, another deadly disease caused by bacteria (mostly spread via drinking water), popped up and had its way with 1849. Thousands were dead in just three weeks of the cholera outbreak, leaving unscathed mostly those folks who had decided to quarantine themselves with their own stay-at-home orders. The cholera epidemic is believed to be the cause for the establishment of the Louisiana State Board of Health, which was the first of its kind to be created in the United States in 1855. It is safe to presume that the entire population, vexed by cholera and then yellow fever, could have been wiped out had it not been for the quarantine measures of its citizenry.
Bubonic plague, yes, the Black Death, even reared its head in the city of New Orleans in the 20th Century. It should be noted that bubonic plague is still in existence as it was never eradicated. The Black Death can still be found in some third-world countries around the globe. And Black Death made its way to Louisiana, the same way that it made its way to Europe, by rats on ships. The first plague death was reported in New Orleans in 1914, when a 49-year-old Swedish sailor showed symptoms and later died in an isolation ward in Charity Hospital. A New Orleanian back then would have fretted more over Black Death than the eruption of WWI in Europe at around the same time.
According to Richard Campanella, with the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans, the key to defeating the potential epidemic in New Orleans was that “federal, state, and city authorities took the earliest signs of the plague with the utmost seriousness.” Special contagion wards were established for the infected in New Orleans and hundreds of thousands of citizens took to the streets to reduce the rodent population by trapping, killing, and destroying nests of rats that, according to Campanella, ended up “transforming the cityscape to separate rats and humans as much as possible.” It was reported that nearly 400 New Orleanians, in one week, trapped 20,000 rats and laid nearly 300,000 poison baits while discovering at least 17 infected rats. Rat-proofing methods began to become visible on the French Quarter cottages, some of which were boarded up and/or elevated, raised off of the ground. The methods applied in NOLA would lay the blueprint for other major cities like New York City in 1915 and then in Los Angeles in the 1920s, when the New Orleans quarantine station chief was dispatched to assist L.A. in an expert advisory role.
After WWI, the Spanish flu came to town in 1918, a year that New Orleans was reeling from the Axe-Man murders. Perhaps it was the Spanish flu that halted the killing spree of a madman, copycat killer that wrote newspapers requesting that jazz music be played in New Orleans homes as a form of Passover measures. The advent of the face mask arrived, too. It was not uncommon 100 years ago to see people in the French Quarter as they are seen today, wearing a face mask to filter and protect the spread of the Spanish flu. Between September 8, 1918, and March 15, 1919, there were 3,362 Spanish flu-related deaths, which was twice the national rate and about one percent of our city’s population.
As of the writing of this blog, there was 2,690 COVID-19 death reported in the state of Louisiana. And while the numbers climb in the state, New Orleans has seen a decrease in deaths and cases reported.
So, quarantine life in New Orleans is “old hat.” Perhaps it is something ingrained in the New Orleans native. Maybe the laissez faire attitude that many perceive is part of the New Orleans conditioning to its environment. Whereas, sometimes it may just be best to stay at home safe with your family, let time wash over you with a mint julep on the front porch or in a courtyard, and wait for things to return to normal while dabbling in creative endeavors. When Mayor LaToya Cantrell issued a lockdown order and quarantine measures, the average New Orleanian took it seriously as a part of life (and death) in New Orleans. Those same quarantine measures of the past are how we got to where we are today. Yet again, New Orleans becomes a model city due to its colorful 300+ years of experience and history.