The 1896 Drought: How does 2023 compare?

By Wesley Harris

Several times lately, the skies have clouded with hopes of a deluge to quench thirsty lawns and gardens. Yet, a good rain never seems to come. National Weather Service records show we received 4 ½ inches of rain from September 1-October 31. Rainfall during that two-month period in past years has averaged about 10 ½ inches. Even less rain fell in the summer months.

The brutal heat this past summer curtailed many outdoor activities and increased emergency room visits for heat-related illnesses. Just for some perspective, North Louisiana recorded quite a number of 100+° days during the summer. Our highest temperature on record for any August was 110° on August 18, 1909. We saw temps of 109° on Aug 10, 1936. But you might say “it’s never gone on this long.” In 2011, twelve years ago, 16 August days had their highest temps on record, reaching 104-109°. 

Creeks and farm ponds that stood at three or four feet deep early in the year are bone dry. A single good rain won’t remedy that.

2023 has been a hot one. A dry one. But hottest, driest year ever? Hardly.

A Louisiana weather event nearly lost to history save some study by researchers is the Great Drought of 1896. While 2023 has been an extremely dry year with wildfires Louisiana has not seen in decades, it pales in comparison to the 1896 drought.

Although Louisiana boasts thousands of miles of creeks, bayous, rivers, and vast wetlands, the state experiences occasional drought conditions. A drought may include direct effects on local economic and water resources and may cause secondary issues such as wildfires. Northern Louisiana parishes have been especially prone to agricultural droughts affecting crop production.

The 1896 drought remains Louisiana’s driest spell in the past 200 years. Especially hard hit by the drought were the north central parishes of Lincoln, Bienville, Claiborne, Jackson, Union, and Webster, but much of Louisiana and adjoining states suffered as well.

Farmers planted their fields and garden in the spring like any other year. Cotton to sell for cash, corn for the livestock, and vegetables to can and store to feed families through the winter.

The rain stopped in April. By June, farmers realized yields would be low even if the rains came soon. They didn’t.

Dogs died of heat exhaustion. Rattlesnakes squirmed their way into homes to find relief. Even the birds flew away.

Wildfires covered the region. Much of the dense woods around Natchitoches burned for weeks

Cotton, the region’s cash crop, withered and struggled to produce its precious fibers. Instead of one acre providing its normal bale of cotton, it took ten acres to make one. Without cotton to sell, farmers would lack cash until the sale of the next year’s crop, a disaster for them and the merchants, bankers, and creditors who relied on the harvest.

Sweltering heat magnified the lack of rain. Daily summer temperatures in 1896 routinely climbed past 100°. Construction projects in the cities ground to a halt because the heat exhausted workers. Parched corn stalks produced virtually nothing. Gardens grew barely enough vegetables to justify the effort. Creeks dried up and farmers struggled to water their stock. Families subsisted on cornbread and milk, going without meat or vegetables for weeks.

In early August, a Shreveport Times writer declared, “If this drought continues much longer, Shreveport will be entirely without wholesome drinking water.”

People gathered in meetings to discuss the calamity. Long before the days of FEMA and other government assistance, communities sought ways to care for themselves. The only solution offered was to ask for help and take care of one another until it came.

In the fall, businessmen arranged for corn to be shipped in, offering it at reduced rates to the drought sufferers.

It did not rain again in north Louisiana until mid-September but too late to make much difference. Enough precipitation to break the drought did not arrive until December.

The rains did not bring relief. Any chance to grow food for the winter was long gone. Cattle and other stock were starving. Families that had refused assistance out of pride now begged for help.

A grant of aid by the governor, a first for Louisiana state government, and corn from the Midwest headed off widespread starvation.

One survivor of the drought described it as “worse than the Depression. We didn’t have any money in the 1930s but at least we had a little food and plenty of water,” something they didn’t have in the summer of 1896.

We have not approached 1896 drought conditions but it’s dry. Really dry.

Pray for rain!