Hurricane Audrey: Weather experts reflect on June’s most powerful hurricane

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer

Hurricane Audrey’s latest movements were fresh on the minds of families in Cameron, Louisiana, before bedtime on June 26, 1957.

Broadcasters announced that the storm, which had strengthened into a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico the day before, would make landfall over the Texas and Louisiana border late the next day.

“A lot of people thought it was too early to have a major hurricane, so I think forecasters might not have taken it seriously,” said Bill Murray, president and weather historian for The Weather Factory. “Of course, we didn’t have the tools [back then], either."

Fishing boat - Hurricane Audrey

A fishing scooner rests high and dry on a road after it was tossed from the water as Hurricane Audrey ripped through the southern Louisiana coastal town of Cameron. (AP Photo/Randy Taylor)

In a time before satellites, meteorologists relied on aircraft reconnaissance, ship reports and minimal radar to monitor the storm’s whereabouts.

The United States Weather Bureau’s 10 p.m. report placed Audrey at about 235 miles south of Lake Charles, a Louisiana town 52 miles inland.

The advisory warned that those living in low exposed areas should move to higher ground as the storm crept northward toward the coast at 10 mph.

Assuming that they had ample time to escape Audrey’s impact, Cameron residents had packed their vehicles in preparation for an early morning evacuation.

In its final six hours before landfall, a strong upper-level trough helped the intensifying hurricane rapidly accelerate as it barreled toward the southern U.S. A trough is an elongated area of relatively low atmospheric pressure, according to the National Weather Service (NWS).

“It caught the Weather Bureau by surprise, to some degree,” said Murray.

Hurricane Audrey

“[Audrey] was catastrophic because it hit first thing, during pre-dawn hours,” said Bill Kirk, CEO of Weather Trends International. “Nobody expected it that soon.”

Weather Bureau forecasters in Lake Charles released a 1 a.m. update on June 27, stating that Audrey’s speed had ramped to up to 20 mph with 150-mph winds.

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By that time, however, broadcasters had gone off the air and residents of Vermilion, Iberia and Cameron parishes were fast asleep.

Audrey pounded the southern U.S. coast and destroyed coastal communities with intense winds and flooding.

“People woke up around 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning with 6 feet of water coming into their houses,” said Murray.

About 1,000 people made it safely into Cameron’s three-story courthouse, said Murray, in which the first two floors were inundated.

However, those unable to escape the powerful hurricane drowned in Gulf waters pushed inland by an unexpected storm surge of at least 12 feet.

In 2016, as part of the ongoing Atlantic Hurricane Database Re-analysis Project, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) reassessed and downgraded Audrey from a Category 4 to a 3 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.

The NHC determined that upon landfall, Audrey’s maximum sustained surface winds were 125 mph.

Audrey, the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the month of June, killed at least 500 people and caused an estimated $150 million in damage in the U.S.

It is the seventh-deadliest hurricane in modern history, according to the NWS. The storm’s impact and intense storm surge were felt as far as 25 miles inland in southwestern Louisiana.

Many victims, nine of whom died in southeastern Texas, were never found.

U.S. Weather Bureau Lake Charles - Hurricane Audrey

A certificate of appreciation was awarded to the Weather Service office at Lake Charles, Louisiana, following the passage of Hurricane Audrey. (Photo/Archival Photography by Steve Nicklas, NOS, NGS)

Some survivors, including Whitney Bartie, sued the Weather Bureau for failing to provide enough warning.

Bartie lost his wife and five children when Aubrey battered Cameron Parish with severe storm surge. The Weather Bureau was ultimately found to be not negligent.

According to the NWS, no reliable wind or pressure measurements are available from Audrey’s center at landfall.

Meteorological developments, including advancements in computer modeling, have vastly improved in the more than half a century since Audrey’s devastation.

“They didn’t have the advantages that we have today of non-stop social media, non-stop coverage of satellite and radar every minute or two,” said Kirk.

“Doppler radars can go out 250 miles, so we’re not going to be surprised. In 1957, they didn’t have radar, really, and they couldn’t see [Audrey] speeding up,” he said.

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