Flashback: That Time New Iberia Was State Capital for a Day
What's the capital of Louisiana?
Of course, the answer is Baton Rouge. The "Red Stick" has held that distinction since 1882. But what if I told you that for one day in 1947, another city served as Louisiana's state capital? What if I told you that city was New Iberia?
You'd probably think I'd smoked something strange. However, it's all true.
It Begins with a Hurricane
The date was September 18, 1947. A strong hurricane was approaching Louisiana and would make landfall near New Orleans later that day.
Before it entered the Gulf of Mexico, that hurricane, known today as the 1947 Fort Lauderdale Hurricane, had struck Florida as a Category 4 storm with sustained winds around 130 miles per hour and wind gusts as high as 180 miles per hour. The storm destroyed homes along Florida's Atlantic coast, snapped utility poles, and caused significant flooding. In all, 17 Floridians died in the hurricane. Officials estimated damages to be around $32 million (nearly $490 million in 2022 dollars).
There was one minor problem: Governor Jimmie Davis was out of the state. He was working on a movie project in California as the storm made its way towards the state.
That left the lieutenant governor in charge. That man was New Iberia's J. Emile Verret.
Who Was J. Emile Verret?
James Emile Verret was born in Iberia Parish in 1885 and raised in the parish. He graduated from the parish's public schools, the Southwestern Louisiana Institute (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette), and the Soule College of Business in New Orleans. After a brief time overseeing a sugar plantation and operating a general store, Verret went into the insurance business, serving as an agent for New York Life Insurance Company.
In 1912, at the age of 27, he was elected to the Iberia Parish School Board. He was later named board president. In 1943, Verret entered the race for lieutenant governor, running against Earl K. Long, who had already served as both lieutenant governor and governor. On February 29, 1944, Verret beat Long to become the state's second-highest officer.
Verret served only one term, as state law at the time barred governors and lieutenant governors from seeking reelection while in office. He returned to his insurance business and worked there until his death at the age of 79.
As the Fort Lauderdale Hurricane approached the Louisiana coast, Verret, as acting governor, issued an order shutting down the state government and sending state employees home.
The proclamation read, in part:
"Until further notice, the official office of the state will be 215 Julia Street, New Iberia, Louisiana."
With the stroke of his pen, Acting Governor J. Emile Verret made New Iberia the capital of Louisiana and his own home the capitol building.
The Daily Iberian's celebrated the historic moment with a front-page headline in the next day's edition. That headline read: New Iberia Serving As State Capital For the Day! The newspaper reran the headline and the story on the 50th anniversary of the occasion.
Baton Rouge and Acadiana were spared of major damage, so state government operations resumed as normal on September 20. Verret's home and hometown were no long Louisiana's seat of government.
Verret and the rest of the state government had a tall task facing them when they returned to Baton Rouge: New Orleans flooded after a levee broke during the hurricane.
The Temporary Capitol Building
If you want to seek out this quirky piece of Louisiana history, you're in luck.
The Verret home still stands at 215 Julia Street in New Iberia. The temporary capitol building remains a private residence, so if you want to take pictures of the historic site, you'll only be able to get an exterior shot.
However, photos posted on Facebook by the Iberia Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness give us an idea of how the inside of the house looked in 1947. That photo features Lieutenant Governor Verret and his wife sitting on a couch.
Another photo included in the Iberia Parish OHSEP post shows the Verrets' children standing in front of the home 50 years after it was the state capitol for a day.
So, yes! New Iberia was indeed Louisiana's state capital. It was only for a day, but it still counts. And it's all because the governor was out of town, and the lieutenant governor was hunkering down for a hurricane.