Hurricane Betsy and Me

Before Katrina, there was Hurricane Betsy. After doing her famous loop to loop, off of Florida in the Atlantic, she headed into the Gulf of Mexico. She then slammed into the Louisiana coast at Grand Isle. Wind gusts of 160 miles per hour were clocked at Grand Isle’s Coast Guard station. Almost every building in the resort community was destroyed. She then made her presence known to New Orleans and roared in at 125 miles an hour, leaving destruction and flooding in her wake. That fateful storm was 45 years ago today. It was Thursday, September 9, 1965. So destructive was her fury that Betsy later became known as the “Billion-Dollar Hurricane”. She killed 76 people in Louisiana and anyone living through that terrible storm has a story to tell. Here is mine.

School had barely resumed after summer vacation when we were sent home due to warnings of Hurricane Betsy. My parents, brother, and I were living on Gordon St. in the lower 9th Ward, which is below the Industrial Canal in New Orleans. As a kid, you take your cues from your parents, and all indications were that Betsy was going to be BIG. We made all of our storm preparations like gassing up the car, storing water, buying extra batteries, and making sure we had some extra canned food. Then we waited. Hurricanes always seem to come at night and I recall lying in bed listening to the howling wind. The next thing I remember, we were standing on our front porch watching water rise in the streets. There was a nervous anxiety in the air as grown ups called out to one another discussing options if the water didn’t stop. We lived in a raised shotgun house, which is typical for New Orleans. The water stopped within 2 feet of entering our front door. The dads carried all of us kids to a two-story house on the block. Keeping us out of  filthy water was essential. Polio was a dreaded disease and parents were gripped with the fear of crippled children. In all of this, the fat lady watched from across the street. She looked unconcerned as she sat in her usual metal chair, just watching. I remember some concern from the grown ups about what was going to happen to her. My next memory is of the Coast Guard or Civil Defense coming by in a boat calling out evacuation instructions through a bullhorn. When it was my family’s turn to leave, we were loaded into a small boat leaving everything behind except for the clothes on our backs. We were taken to the Industrial Canal where we got out and walked across the bridge. It was kind of weird because there was no flooding on the other side of the canal. It was dark and eerie, though, and we didn’t exactly know where to go. We started walking and ended up on Canal Street, where we finally found a working pay phone. My parents were able to contact my aunt and uncle in Metairie and somehow they arranged to pick us up. After the phone call, I remember my mother being worried about family in Arabi. The news was that the flooding was much worse in St. Bernard and that two of my cousins were missing.

Floodwater didn’t recede for 10 days, electricity was out, and as I recall, we stayed at my aunt and uncle’s house for about 3 weeks. After Betsy, nobody had to go to school for awhile and that period of time holds some of my most cherished childhood memories. For one, my cousin taught me to skateboard.

  • All of our family was safe and sound but everything was different after Betsy.
  • Polio is spread through contact with contaminated feces and as the flood water was of unknown origin, parents were simply cautious.

If you have a storm story, please share. We’d love to hear it!

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