When my family moved from Texas to Mississippi in 1948, one of the first day trips we took was 70 miles due south, to see the Gulf Coast. That was in the early spring and the place had been pretty much torn up by a hurricane the year before, when storms weren‘t given names, so it wasn’t a Katrina or a Clara or even a Ralph, and the one that came later in ‘48 and finished tossing the seawall over highway 90 was unnamed, too.
I got to thinking about this the other day — the 2012 storm season having begun on June 1 — and also about the fact that until fairly lately New Orleans was a place to evacuate to, instead of from. We used to read stories in the paper about the folks from Grand Isle and the mouth of the river coming into town to stay with relatives and at hotels, and watch them arrive on television and never once did New Orleanians think of leaving. We knew that unless a hurricane came up the river in a certain way — like threading the eye of a needle — we’d be safe from rising waters and the worst winds because our barrier islands and wetlands would protect us.
In the early ‘60s, a storm came close enough for one of the tornados accompanying it to hit the French Quarter. I remember that well, because I’d convinced my husband to leave our little house in a new subdivision on the West Bank to go to his dad’s home on Chartres Street, and we’d been there only about 20 minutes when the twister touched down, filling his patio with roof tiles and sending him to the hospital for hours of surgery on two broken ankles and feet.
Then, in 1965, Hurricane Betsy paid a visit. We’d decided to ride that one out in a newer and slightly bigger house, putting our 4- and 6-year-old daughter and son’s mattresses down in the center of the house. As they slept and my husband snored on the sofa next to them in the den, I roamed the house, using clean sheets and towels to sop from our new carpets the water driven in around the windows by the wind.
The next morning, we drove around a neighborhood where damage was limited mostly to broken windows, roofs that had been peeled of their shingles but not ripped off entirely, and utility wires and small trees down all over the place.
The worst of the storm was yet to come, though. Without power, we had driven over to the Quarter, where they did for some reason have electricity, to wash the sheets and towels I’d wet. It was the second day after the storm, our children were bored without TV, and we decided to go to one of the movies playing on Canal Street.
While there, we heard sirens all over the place and found out that the 9th Ward was flooding, and Mayor Vic Schiro had asked city residents with boats to rally for a rescue mission. It was a terrible time; not as bad as the aftermath to Katrina, but bad enough. My husband had a roofing sub-contractor living in the area, and called the radio stations to get a message to him. He said that he’d swum into a convenience store to get food for his children and others trapped in the second floor of a school. If that was looting, then it was the only kind I heard of during the ordeal. No stolen television sets.
After Betsy, the hurricane seasons passed without much threat to New Orleans. Storms took aim at us but failed to deliver. One year we were in London, our teen-aged off-spring at home with their grandmother, and worried for a night and day until we heard that — once again — a threat to New Orleans had materialized into only a little rain.
The year that Hurricane Camille ransacked the Mississippi Gulf Coast, my mother pled mightily for us to drive 100 miles north and stay with her and Daddy. When we did make the trip a day or two later, it was to find that the pine trees along the way had been snapped off about 10 feet or so up their trunks and my parents’ wooded yard was covered in debris from the winds.
During the next years, we spent one night of a near miss in The Times-Picayune building — along with our two dogs — and several with relatives across the Texas border from Shreveport. One year we were in Vicksburg before the radio told us a storm had veered away from New Orleans. There had been no place to stay on the road; accommodations were booked up. We had to keep driving.
By then we knew that our wetlands and barrier islands were disappearing, and evacuation had become routine unless you were incurably optimistic, hadn’t the resources or energy to flee north, and were worried about what you‘d be leaving behind.
“Why didn’t they leave?” asked the talking heads on CNN. I can tell them. Because leaving is a bigger deal than they can imagine. Let’s hope none of us will have to this hurricane season.
Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.