Friday is the 50th Anniversary of Hurricane Hilda; 8 men died in Erath
Former Vermilion Parish Sheriff Euda Delcambre (with cowboy hat) climbs down the pile of debris. The water tower sits on top of the debris.
The eight men who died in Erath.
Parts of city hall were damaged from the water.
(Written by Stacy Bodin and Robert B. Vincent)
ERATH - Friday marks the 50th Anniversary of Hurricane Hilda making landfall in Louisiana and it left a tragic mark on the town of Erath.
The deadly storm made landfall near Marsh Island leaving death and devastation behind. The storm resulted in the death of 31 Louisiana residents, including eight Erath residents.
On this date 50 years ago, the 125-foot high water tower fell, emptying 40,000 of gallons onto the streets of Erath. No one is 100 percent sure what caused the water tower to fall - the strong winds of the hurricane or a tornado.
This most began on the afternoon of Oct. 3, 1964 as Erath residents gathered at the town’s City Hall, located at 207 South Broadway Street.
The City Hall was built under and next to the town’s water tower. The 50-year old water tower was filled to capacity to ensure the residents of Erath would have a water supply after the storm. Volunteers gathered in the City Hall to assist the Erath Civil Defense.
The day before the storm, the members of the Civil Defense formulated a plan to prepare the town for the hurricane approaching the Louisiana coast.
Erath City Hall was going to be used as the headquarters of the Civil Defense. The men agreed that they would be available to go out during the storm to rescue people, cut downed trees from the power lines, and to ensure the general safety of the town and its residents. A CB (Citizens Band) radio was set up in City Hall to communicate with emergency personnel in Erath and the surrounding towns. A spare radio was set up on the second floor of the Bank of Erath that was located across the street from the City Hall.
The Civil Defense had three men who operated the CB radio: David Broussard, the owner of the local funeral home; his son Martial Broussard; and Scotty Bernard, a 19-year-old USL student. At 5:15 p.m., Martial Broussard arrived at City Hall to relieve Scotty Bernard at the CB radio. He said hello to Scotty, checked the location of the storm on the plotting chart, and then proceeded to hang up his rain coat. While hanging his coat, Broussard heard a deafening noise, which was followed by an unending amount of water that engulfed the group. Broussard was thrown by the blow, but was pinned by metal beams and building debris. Trapped and unable to break free, water kept rapidly and steadily raging over him.
At the time, Broussard thought a tidal wave had hit.
He still can recall that day 50 years later.
“It happened so fast,” said Broussard.
Some of the eight people who died were only a few feet away from Broussard when the water tower fell.
“I am a believer of when it is not your time, it is not your time,” Broussard said. “It was not my time.”
Cleve Thibodeaux, an Erath Councilman at the time, was driving north on South Broadway Street at the time. He was looking through the legs of the water tower to check on the TV antenna at his TV repair shop located on East Edwards Street. As he was checking on his antenna, he saw an image that was forever branded in his mind and in his heart. He literally saw the 125 foot water tower and giant cylinder case holding 40,000 gallons of water, “twist and fall” upon the City Hall Building. `A rivet from the legs of the tower hit the door of his truck. He parked his truck in front of Vermilion Auto Parts (now the Acadian Museum) and called for help on his CB radio in the truck. He said the water tower had fallen on the City Hall, and heavy equipment was needed to remove the tower from the building.
Martial Broussard was trapped and could be heard calling for help.
Vermilion Parish Deputy Sheriff Harold Dyson, Civil Defense volunteers Steve Granger and Jackie “Jackee” Jesse, and other men were able to obtain a hydraulic jack to lift the metal beam that trapped him.
It took 45 minutes, with the use of the jack, to lift the weight of the steel beam off of Broussard. Later, he was brought to his father’s home on Derouen Street to recover. Men near the front of the building or outside the building were literally shoved away by the force of the water, but survived. Several men were in the rear of the building, where the jail was located, and survived as well.
The six survivors of this tragic event were Martial Broussard, Joseph Schexnaider, Willie Bodin, Clemile Dubois, Nuda Trahan, and Obrey Choates.
Once the survivors were rescued, all recovery efforts were halted as it was dark and the storm was still roaring. Many Civil Defense workers, along with the parents of Scotty Bernard, spent that long night at the Bank of Erath building (across the street from City Hall), within feet of their deceased friends and family.
The next morning, heavy equipment from Roy Young arrived, and the recovery effort began at 4 Sunday morning. Rescue workers labored through the early morning hours to locate and remove the dead bodies, with the search concluding at 10 a.m.. The final count of fatalities totaled eight on the morning of October 3, 1964.
As the bodies on that solemn morning were located, they were wrapped in canvas tarpaulins, with their names written on the side. The bodies were taken to a building belonging to the Erath Sugar Company at the corner of Hill Street and Bobcat Alley, about four blocks away from the scene. Numb and grief stricken family members and friends sat silently outside until a truck arrived loaded with caskets. As the caskets were ready, each man was transferred into the appropriate casket.
Eight brave Erath men died tragic deaths due to the repercussions of Hurricane Hilda’s wrath. Those who lost their lives in this horrendous tragedy were:
• Joseph Camile “Joe” Brown, 50, was a former sheriff’s deputy, city councilman, and mayor pro tempore for Erath
• Brothers: Vernice and Duffy Broussard. Vernice, 20, was a 1963 graduate of Erath High School and worked at a local hardware store. His brother Duffy, 28, was a 1954 Erath High School graduate, who worked as an appliance store employee.
• Eutis “Noo Noo” Menard, 53, was the janitor at Erath High School.
· Otto “Cowboy” Bourque, 53, was the patrolman at Erath High School.
• Clifton J. Dugas, 33, was a construction worker.
• Felix Dubois, 53, was a farmer.
• Rane Scott Joseph “Scotty” Bernard, 19, was the youngest victim. He was a 1963 graduate of Erath High School and was attending college at USL.
The bodies of the eight men were then brought to Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, where the eight caskets were lined up in front of the church. Family members stayed with the bodies all night in the candle lit church. The church windows were opened as there was no air conditioning due to the power outage in the town. Family members commented on how eerie that dark church was, with only their cries and occasional wales to break the quiet of the night.
A multiple Catholic funeral service was held at 10 a.m. on Monday, October 5, 1964, at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, only blocks away from the remains of the City Hall.
All eight men were exposed in the Catholic church in Erath. With photographs surrounding the eight caskets lined up in the front of church, family members and friends gathered to bid these brave men good bye.
Governor John J. McKeithen, on an aerial inspection of the Louisiana southern coast, stopped by briefly to attend part of the service held for the town’s eight victims. The governor extended his sympathy to Mayor Leroy Suire. Almost the entire town gathered to offer its prayers for their neighbors taken from them in this tragedy. At the time of the service, mourners filled the church yard, as well as the school yard located across the street.
Citizens of Erath will never forget the stories, the multiple funerals, or the loss of so many human lives. Although a vast number of changes have occurred since the collapse of the 125 foot water tower, details are still vivid in the minds of residents. The bravery of the fallen Erath residents will never be forgotten.