Editor’s note: There’s another big hurricane anniversary this year, swept under the rug of all the recent 10K hoopla. Today, Sept. 9, marks half a century since Hurricane Betsy was New Orleans’ first catastrophic storm.
When a couple of local TV weather forecasters and both newspapers agreed that the hurricane was headed to New Orleans, we started getting ready. Despite my mother’s pleas that we drive up to Hattiesburg and safety, we had no intention of evacuating.
We’d moved into our home in a new West Bank neighborhood only that summer, and my husband, a home builder, had some other projects underway. When they were secured, he and I — a stay-at-home mom at the time — cleared away from our yard any objects that might fly in the wind and break a window, fortifying at least a dozen of them with strips of masking tape.
He’d taken the two cars to a nearby gas station for fill-ups in case it wouldn’t be open for a while later. I went to the grocery store and bought ready-to-eat food items necessary for survival after the electricity surely would go off, plus several big bags of ice to put in the foam coolers in the garage. And, oh yes, I’d bought dozens of candles and batteries for our two radios, which we would listen to day and night.
I filled both bathtubs with water. And quickly washed and dried all the dirty clothes in the hamper.
I can’t remember exactly all we did in preparation for the coming storm, because that was a long time ago: 50 years come Sept. 9. The hurricane I’m talking about was Betsy, not Katrina, and you’d have realized that quickly if I’d said that one of the TV reporters predicting her landfall here was Nash Roberts.
Why am I writing about Betsy now, just three days before the Katrina 10th anniversary? Well, because I kind of missed The Big K, can’t claim to be an eyewitness to all of her history. We evacuated early to our little weekend place on the north shore, took off from there to Texas, then wound up — in Istanbul! — on a Turkish trip. We’d already paid for the costly excursion and couldn’t get refunds.
Flooding in the Lower 9th Ward after Hurricane … Betsy. (Photo: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
Betsy smashed ashore near Grand Isle on the night of Sept. 9, arriving in Louisiana as a Category 3 monster, packing wind gusts of 145 mph. Only foundations and debris were left where Betsy made landfall in Grand Isle. In St. Bernard Parish, the fishing villages of Ycloskey and Delacroix Island were washed away.
That night, our son and daughter, 6 and 4, slept on mattresses we’d hauled from their rooms into the den, the most central and enclosed room in the house. My husband snored on a sofa nearby, and I — I prowled the building, trying to look out the windows, managing to get a glimpse of a house across a vacant lot and failing to understand that our neighbor’s roof had been stripped of all its shingles (the roof had been black, not white). Wondering about the flashlight beams I saw and voices I heard from across the street — a window had blown out and the men of the family were trying to cover it. I was using all my clean towels and most of the clean sheets to mop up water that ran and dripped through some of our horizontal-slide windows.
Finally, I too went to sleep. It wasn’t that scary.
After our little family had survived Betsy and ventured outside, finding limbs and small trees and glass and wires in the streets of our neighborhood but no terrible damage, we just hunkered down for a day or two. It wasn’t easy: Our little ones were shaken by the loss of freedom — no permission to roam the littered streets — AND the absence of television: No “Great McNutt”! No “Johnnies’ Follies”!
It must have been about three nights after Betsy landed that we decided to take them to the movie houses on Canal Street, which had power and were showing their films. So did the French Quarter, and we first called at a laundromat to wash the towels and sheets I’d used to mop up. Then it was off to the cinema, and I can’t remember what we saw but will never forget the sirens we began to hear filling the CBD that night.
There had been breaches on both sides of the Industrial Canal, and Mayor Victor Schiro had issued a call for “everybody with a boat” to help rescue those whose homes were beginning to flood. The event made Betsy the first billion-dollar hurricane, causing $1.2 billion (1965 USD) in damage and claiming 81 lives — the records are inconsistent on that; a small event compared to Katrina but significant.
The rescues from the flooded areas went on for days; my husband got a few of the stories from a roofing sub-contractor with whom he worked and had managed to contact through the various radio programs that were putting people together.
The man had helped his family and others get to safety inside a two-story school, and gotten some food for them by swimming down into a convenience store. Looting? Perhaps, but not like breaking into a place to steal a television set 40 years later.
Different times, different people, but many with the same problems facing those who later lost homes — from mansions on the lakefront to shotguns in the Ninth Ward — to Katrina. Those of my own family remained safe, for which I’m deeply thankful. When we drove into our driveway 10 years ago, from Istanbul via the Birmingham airport and after nearly a month’s absence from home, only the back fence had blown down.