In the summer of 1856, Zoe Emma Mille vacationed on Last Island at the tip of Louisiana with her parents, brothers, sister-in-law and a niece/nephew (the gender’s been lost to history). She was the only member of her party to survive the hurricane that struck the island.
Emma is remembered as the last living survivor of the Last Island hurricane (which hit in the days before hurricanes were named) – and that may be true. She was 97 when she died in 1936.
A year before her death, she shared her story with a New Orleans newspaper.
If you’ve been to Louisiana in July or August, then you can understand the appeal of an island awash in the breeze from the Gulf of Mexico. Located off the coast of Terrebonne Parish, Last Island had a big hotel and privately owned cottages. Emma’s father owned one of those cottages. It was their first time vacationing in it.
They boarded the ferry at Plaquemine and arrived to an island packed with vacationing families. Every cottage seemed to be occupied.
Quickly, though, the Milles started to worry. The waves were too high for wading. The wind was blowing hard. The temperature soared, a light rain began to fall and the wind picked up even more power.
It soon became clear this wasn’t a summer storm. A hurricane was hitting and would rip the island into pieces.
Other cottage occupants fled to the big hotel. The Milles stayed put because the baby was sick. That afternoon, crowded together in one room, they felt the house shake. Then the waves crashed in.
Emma saw her sister-in-law sweep past her. She was clutching her baby. They – along with Emma’s parents and brothers – drowned. Only Emma survived. She was one of the few who drifted back ashore after being washed out to the Gulf.
Another vacationer – Dr. Alfred Duperier – fled the hotel when the hurricane hit and dashed into a cottage, where he tied himself to an armoire. The next morning, he found himself on the beach looking at the ruins of the hotel.
Now an orphan, Emma left the island on the same boat as Dr. Duperier. He carried her in a chair off the ship because she was too weak to walk. Emma stayed with Dr. Duperier’s mother until her brother-in-law could collect her.
Before she left, Dr. Duperier gave Emma a book of religious poems. Inside was a note: “As Divine Providence saved us miraculously, it must be that we were destined for each other.”
He proposed two weeks later.