The War with the Newts, by Karel Čapek

Chapter 7

The Louisiana Earthquake

On that day, on the 11th. November at one o’clock in the morning, there was a powerful earth tremor felt in New Orleans; some of the buildings in the black areas collapsed; people ran out onto the street in panic, but there was no second tremor; there was only a short, howling cyclone that struck with a sudden furious onslaught, smashing windows and blowing the rooves off the houses where the negroes lived; a few dozen people were killed; and then there was a heavy downpour of mud.

As the New Orleans firemen went out to help in the worst affected areas, telegrams were tapped out from Morgan City, Plaquemine, Baton Rouge and Lafayette: SOS! Send help! City half destroyed by earthquake and cyclone; Mississippi dam at risk of breaking; send searchers, ambulances, all able-bodied men immediately! - From Fort Livingston there was only this laconic question: Hello, anything happening there? It was followed by a message from Lafayette: Attention! Attention! Worst affected New Iberia. Connection between Iberia and Morgan City seems broken. Send help there! - Morgan City telephoned in reply: No communications with New Iberia. Roads and railroads seem destroyed. Send ships and airplanes to Vermillion Bay! We need nothing. Have around thirty dead and hundred injured. - Then a telegram came from Baton Rouge: Received news, worst affected New Iberia. Concentrate resources New Iberia. Here need only workers, urgent, dam in danger of breaking. Doing all possible. And then: Hello, hello, Shreveport, Natchitoches, Alexandria sending trains with help to New Iberia. Hello, hello, Memphis, Winana, Jackson sending trains via Orleans. All vehicles heading dam Baton Rouge. - Hello, Pascagoula here. Some dead here. Need help?

By now fire engines, ambulances and trainfuls of helpers and supplies were on their way to Morgan city - Patterson - Franklin. It was not until after four in the morning that the first accurate news arrived: Railroad closed by floods between Franklin and New Iberia, five miles west of Franklin; seems deep fissure opened by earthquake, connects with Vermillion Bay and flooded with seawater. As far as ascertained, fissure extends from Vermillion Bay east-northeast, near Franklin turns northwards, opens into Grand Lake, continues northwards until line Plaquemine - Lafayette, ending in former lake; second branch fissure connects Grand Lake westwards with Napoleonville Lake. Fissure around fifty miles total length, width one to seven miles. Epicenter apparently here. Seems amazing luck fissure missed all major towns. Loss of life nonetheless substantial. In Franklin twenty-four inches rain of mud, in Patterson eighteen inches. Reports from Atchafalaya Bay, sea retreated two miles at time of earthquake, then hundred foot tidal wave. Feared many dead on coast. Still no communication with New Iberia.

Meanwhile a train carrying supplies from Natchitoches entered New Iberia from the west; the first reports, sent by a roundabout route via Lafayette and Baton Rouge, were awful. The train had not been able to get closer than a few miles from New Iberia because the track had been swept away by the mud. As people fled from the disaster they reported that a volcano of mud had erupted a couple of miles to the east of the town and instantly drenched the area with a thin, cold rain of it; New Iberia, they said, had disappeared under an onslaught of mud. All work was made extremely difficult by the dark and the continuing rain of mud. There was still no direct connection with New Iberia.

At the same time, news arrived from Baton Rouge:

thousands of men working on mississippi dam stop if only rain would stop stop need picks shovels trucks workers stop sending help to plaquemine

Dispatch from Fort Jackson:

one thirty morning sea wave destroyed thirty houses don’t know what it was approximately seventy people swept to sea only now repaired equipment post office destroyed hello wire saying what happened urgent telegrapher fred dalton hello please tell minnie im ok apart from broken hand and loss of clothes but at least equipment ok fred

The report from Port Eads was somewhat shorter:

some dead burywood swept entirely to sea

By about eight in the morning the first aircraft sent to help the affected areas had returned. The whole of the coast from Port Arthur (Texas) to Mobile (Alabama) had been hit by a tidal wave; ruined or damaged buildings were everywhere. The south-eastern part of Louisiana (from the road between Lake Charles and Alexandria to Natchez) and the south of Mississippi (as far as the line Jackson - Hattiesburg - Pascagoula) were swamped with mud. A new bay stretched inland from Vermillion Bay, two to eight miles wide and reaching in on a zig-zag line almost as far as Plaquemine like a long fjord. New Iberia seemed to have been seriously damaged but many people could be seen digging the mud away from roads and houses. Impossible to land. The most serious loss of life likely to have been on the coast. A steamer, clearly from Mexico, sunk off Point au Fer. Sea around Chandeleur Islands covered in debris. Rain easing off over the entire area. Visibility good.

The first special issue of the New Orleans paper went out at just after four in the morning; as the day went on more issues were published and the details accumulated; at eight in the morning appeared the first photographs of the affected areas with maps of the new inlets from the sea. At half past eight they printed an interview with the celebrated seismologist from Memphis University, Dr. Wilbur R. Bownell, about the cause of the earthquake in Louisiana. It’s still too early to come to any firm conclusions, the famous scientist declared, but it seems that these tremors have nothing to do with the volcanic activity, which has been so active up till now, in the volcano belt of central Mexico which lies directly across from the affected area. Today’s earthquake seems rather to be of tectonic origin, that’s to say it was caused by the weight and pressure of mountains: one the one side there are the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Madre, and on the other side there are Appalachian Hills on the extensive lowlands of the Gulf of Mexico which continue down to the mouth of the Mississippi. The chasm that now runs up from Vermillion Bay is only small and insignificant compared with the geological collapse that has already created the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, along with the ring of islands that make up the Greater and Lesser Antilles, which were once a range of mountains. There is no doubt whatsoever that this subsidence in central America will continue with new tremors, new faults and new chasms appearing; it is even possible that the fault running up from Vermilion Bay is no more than a prelude to the reactivation of the tectonic process with its center in the Gulf of Mexico; and if that is the case we might well be witnesses to an enormous geological catastrophe in which nearly a fifth of the United States might end up as seabed. But if that really is the case there is a certain likelihood that the ocean bed in the region of the Antilles will start to rise, or it could be somewhat further east where, according to the ancient legends, we might hope to find the sunken city of Atlantis.

On the other hand, the scientist continued more reassuringly, we need not take seriously any fear of volcanic activity in the affected areas; these craters hurling mud into the air are nothing more than eruptions of natural gas which must have been under the Vermilion fault. It wouldn’t be at all surprising to find gigantic caverns of gas underneath the Mississippi Delta area, and these caverns of natural gas can explode when they come into contact with the air, hurling hundreds of thousands of tons of water and mud into the air as they do so. But of course, before we can come to any definitive conclusions, Dr. W.R. Brownell repeated, we will need to obtain more data.

While Dr. Brownell’s geological observations on the catastrophe went to press, the governor of the state of Louisiana received this telegram from Fort Jackson:

regret loss of human life stop tried to miss your cities but didn’t expect retreat of seawater and tidal wave after explosion stop found three hundred forty six human victims along entire coast stop offer condolences stop chief salamander stop hello fred dalton here fort jackson post office three newts just left who came in office ten minutes ago sent telegram holding pistol to my head but gone now vile monsters paid and ran back in water only doctors dog chased them shouldn’t let those creatures free in city no other news send love to minnie lacoste fred dalton telegrapher

The governor of the state of Louisiana pored long over this telegram. Some kind of joker, this Fred Dalton, I reckon, he finally said. Best not to give this to the papers.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52