Below is an excerpt from a book detailing an experience of the Yugoslavian people in Louisiana back in 1893 during the CheniÃ¨re Caminada hurricane (also called the Great October Storm). It mentions one of my wife Casey’s relatives, Matthew Kuluz, whose sons (one of which was her grandfather) eventually moved to Biloxi. The book appears to be Yugoslavs in Louisiana by Milos M. Vujnovich (Amazon.com Book Link). The version on Google Books contains different text than what is on the pages I was given and have transcribed so I’m guessing I have text from an earlier version (searching the Google Books page for Kuluz yields and index showing him on pages 141, 142, and 143). I wanted to go ahead and post it here in digital form for posterity since it does detail her family’s history. I have fixed simple grammar and spelling issues in the text, but otherwise left it intact and added a couple of hyperlinks.
Yugoslavs in Louisiana
The hurricane of October 1-2, 1893, came from the Antilles unrecorded by the Cuban or the Miami weather station so that no warnings were given to the Louisiana residents. It came upon them like a thief in the night, robbing them of their homes, their belongings, their dear ones, and in many cases their own lives. It came with winds averaging 140 miles per hour and a tidal wave estimated at 20 feet, leveling everything in its path.
October 1 was a Sunday, a day of rest and get together for the folks of Bayou Cook and vicinity. They spent the day socializing, and some remembering that it was the Sabbath, said a prayer. Toward evening menacing black clouds darkened the skies, followed by gusty rain, increased winds, and rising tides. By the time darkness fell, the experienced oystermen realized that a hurricane was blowing somewhere in the Gulf, and, without alarming their families, they hoped and prayed that it would pass them by as many storms had done before or that it would blow itself out during the night, without doing heavy damage to their homes and luggers. But it struck the Bayou Cook area at about eleven o’clock that night. The tidal wave flooded the marshes, crushed the camps, smashed the luggers, and destroyed everything in its path. Many were drowned by the wave; others were killed or injured by the falling and flying timbers. In the confusion of the onslaught of wind and water, all in complete darkness, families were torn apart, children separated from their parents, and parents from each other. The hysterical cries of desperate mothers and fathers and frightened children calling out for each other mingled with the howling wind, rain, and rushing waters. The storm raged through the night, and when daylight came it revealed a sight of destruction, desolation, and death. The timber from the wrecked camps was mixed with logs, torn trees, smashed boats, boats’ rigging, furniture, and other debris floating on the surface of the murky water. The strong wooden pilings remained fast, pointing above the water the locations of camps and happy homes which they supported a few hours before. Here and there human forms could be distinguished, some dead, others dying, and some clinging to the pilings and the debris, hoping and praying to be rescued. Most of the living were rescued before nightfall and, with the dead, were taken to higher ground. Not all the bodies were recovered, however, and not all the living and the injured were saved. Many, before the rescue parties could reach them, were swept away into the Gulf by receding waters.
All of the oystermen were seasoned sailors, and many, before settling in Louisiana to fish oysters, had navigated the oceans of the world and experienced storms on the high seas. Unhesitatingly many of them credited their survival on this night to a miracle. As they narrated later, they prayed fervently – reciting prayers they learned from their village priests – to St. Nicholas, patron saint of sailors, and to the Almighty; they made promises of sacrifices and became “believers.”
Many near miraculous escapes and many hardships were experienced by the sturdy oystermen during this hurricane, and one of the most outstanding was the survival of two immigrants from Sucuraj, Matthew Kumarich and Matthew Kuluz. They had a lugger named St. Nicolo and a camp on Razor Island in Grand Lake and worked as partners. That Sunday evening they retired to their camp to weather the storm but soon realized that this was not a mere storm but a hurricane. As the water rose they tore up some floorboards to let the water rise into the camp without severing the camp from its foundation. But the water rose so rapidly, and they climbed to the rafters hoping that it would rise no higher and that the camp would withstand the wind and waves. About midnight the camp was torn to pieces, and they were thrown amid the debris, some of which each managed to grab onto. As they were carried from the campsite they spotted an overturned submerged skiff and caught hold of it. When the morning came they realized that they had drifted out into the Gulf, miles from Razor Island. They held on to the sides of the skiff hoping a rescue boat would save them. They drifted with the skiff in open Gulf waters for four days, the hot sun beating down on their peeling skin, which was further irritated by the salty waves washing over their sore bodies. They encouraged each other as best as they could under the circumstances. Thursday passed, and sometime during the night Kumarich exclaimed: “Hvala Bogu, no svijetlo” (“Thank God, there is a light”). They recognized the Southwest Pass lighthouse. As they drifted nearer, expecting to touch the bottom at any moment, the wind suddenly shifted, and they were once more driven out to the sea.
Alternating between complete despair and faint hope, they knew that neither could hold on much longer, but as experienced sailors they also knew that their only hope lay in staying with the submerged skiff. Drifting thus for the fifth day, early Friday morning their feet touched the bottom and soon after, exhausted, and half dead, they pulled themselves ashore. Some distance away they saw a light on a boat and Kuluz, weak as he was, managed to swim to the boat and explain their situation. The lugger took them to the rescue vessel Louisiana by which they were taken to the Grand Isle railroad which took them to New Orleans. The rescue committee of the Slavonian Association took charge of them and supplied them with shelter, food, clothing and medical care. The Times-Democrat reporter interviewed them at Michael Baccich’s store on Decatur Street. Bewildered and unsure of their future, the oystermen were glad to see their compatriots Kuluz and Kumarich whom they lost. Kumarich, the larger and sturdier of the two, survived the ordeal without noticeable change, but Kuluz was not recognized by his own friends, so much had he suffered. His weight had decreased from 165 pounds to 132 pounds in six days. Kumarich later returned to his native Sucuraj and died at a very old age. Kuluz continued fishing oysters in Louisiana waters. Later, his sons moved to nearby Biloxi where they established an oyster canning factory.
After the storm passed and the waters abated completely, most of the oystermen returned to the sites of their homes. They constructed new camps and larger, safer, swifter boats, and they rebuilt and restocked their reefs.