She had such a sweet name, Betsy. Yet she descended on New Orleans with a fury that left no room for sweetness.
Many of the people who knew Betsy personally 36 years ago still talk about her with the stunned air of those who have felt the grip of a natural force that could have easily and carelessly killed them. They also know very well that it was with an equally careless mercy that Betsy spat them out alive.
Some who have never lived through a hurricane might be tempted to view the possibility as an exciting once-in-a-lifetime spectacle. However, the residents of Chalmette and the Ninth Ward hardest hit by the infamous hurricane of the ninth and tenth days of September do not talk about it as an adventure. That would be foolish, and it would dishonor the 67 people that the Red Cross has recorded who died in the storm.
Instead, the survivors of Betsy's fury possess the cautious, humble amazement of people who came close to annihilation and then, through no fault of their own, lived to tell the tale.
A gathering of folks will be telling their memories of Hurricane Betsy over Memorial Day weekend -- a week before the beginning of hurricane season -- in a new play titled An Evening with Betsy, being staged at the Maumus Center in Chalmette. Writer/producer Barry Lemoine teaches journalism and theater arts in the St. Bernard Parish school system, and the script represents the end product of a project he created for his students to learn the art of listening.
Lemoine ran an ad in the newspaper calling for Hurricane Betsy survivor stories. His students interviewed and videotaped the people who came to tell their tales of getting through the storm. From these transcripts, Lemoine distilled the series of vignettes that comprise the play, which he is producing with a grant from the Brown Foundation. Lemoine's colleague, Lenny Unbehagen, created a shotgun double set and is directing the play.
The venue, the Maumus Center in Arabi, had been one of the Red Cross shelters where the residents of Chalmette fled to escape the rising water. Some of the roles are played by actors, but many of the actual survivors themselves appear on stage.
But the biggest role goes to a character that consists only of wind and rain.
Betsy set the local standard for how bad a storm could be. In the recorded history of hurricanes, she was the worst direct hit on New Orleans. The storm required $16 million in Red Cross aid.
Betsy flew straight into the mouth of the Mississippi River, blowing wind at about 120 mph toward the city. In taking this path, Betsy pushed a massive wall of Gulf water ahead of her, making it impossible for the river to follow its natural path. This influx of Gulf water choked up the river and caused the unprecedented flooding. Betsy is also notable in the history of New Orleans storms for its unusually high number of fatalities.
The storytellers in An Evening with Betsy all agree that this storm made a profound change in their world. Ever since, they say, they have arranged their memory of events into two categories: Before Betsy and After Betsy.
Many of their stories are grim. Lois Tilly, a resident of the Ninth Ward, was home visiting on a short break from her classes at Southern University. She woke up in the middle of the night to find a puddle of water on the floor. At first, she thought a pipe had burst in the bathroom. When she got up to investigate, she found water flowing into the house underneath the front door. She escaped to a waiting pirogue on the shoulders of Marvin McCoy, a friend from the Central Missionary Baptist Church who was staying in her parents' house.
The water was already too deep for the 4-feet-10-inch Tilly to walk on her own. Eventually the water rose to 14 feet and lapped against the living room ceiling.
Tilly and her family evacuated to what is now Louis Armstrong High School on St. Claude Avenue, one of the few buildings in the vicinity with a second floor. She later learned that her neighbor had died in his attempt to rescue his mother -- the flood had pushed him against a fence and pinned him there with such strength that he was unable to keep his head above the water line.
Tilly also reports that when she got to the shelter, she looked out the second-floor window to a horrifying sight. "In that water, there were babies floating, along with the snakes," she says. "I saw that. I know that."
Most of the people who died in Betsy were residents of the Ninth Ward, where the water reached its highest level. The flooding was also bad in St. Bernard, but no deaths were reported in that fishing community -- possibly because so many people had boats sitting in their yards.
In fact, it is a paradox of Betsy that just as unspeakable horrors were occuring in one neighborhood, something beautiful could be happening just a few miles away. Rose and Miltie Sand were in high school at the time of the hurricane and were both evacuated to Chalmette High School. Rose was a junior and Miltie a senior.
The evacuation shelter was crowded and confusing. There was no electricity or plumbing. Several people had brought their dogs and cats, many of which were exhibiting nervous bowels. The result was mayhem and stench. Miltie had volunteered to be a physician's assistant even though he had no idea what to do in this position.
What happened was this: Rose's friend Phyllis, who is by all accounts "very dramatic," somehow managed to become over-stimulated by the whole scene and fainted into the arms of the tall and handsome Miltie. This event required that the hardier Rose attend to the delicate and high-strung Phyllis, which is how Rose and Miltie met.
Thirty-six years later, they both admit that they had been eyeing each other in school for quite some time, but it took Betsy to push them together. It also turns out that the hurricane arrived exactly on Miltie's birthday. All the omens were good. And so Rose and Miltie got married.
As the stories of surviving Betsy unfold, a complex image of the hurricane emerges. She becomes even more personified -- we gave her a human name, after all. And yet because she is not human, we cannot know her mind. She appears as a mysterious visitation from a nightmare, the archetypal Terrible Mother.
And in our mythologizing of extreme weather events such as Betsy, we make her into an aspect of that Mother -- the dark and chaotic aspect. The Mother Nature who gives also takes away. She killed people, literally turned our homes upside down, destroyed our peace and safety. However, true to the archetypal pattern of Mother, Betsy also left behind some small gifts.
Louise Alphonso wasn't due to give birth to her second child for another three weeks when Betsy brought flood waters into her home on Delacroix Island. She and her husband, John, and their daughter, Tina, evacuated to the shelter in Lacoste Elementary School. The wind tore the boxes and bags from their hands as they made their way from the car to the school's doors. In the shelter, St. Bernard Sheriff Jack Reilly lined up all the pregnant women -- there were several -- and took an accounting of their due dates. It was at this moment that Alphonso went into labor. "It was my nerves," she remembers. "I'm sure it was nerves."
The Red Cross had radioed to Charity Hospital to arrange for an obstetrician to come by helicopter to St. Bernard General Hospital, which did not have a maternity ward or a birthing staff of its own. Civil Defense produced a truck and 10 men to transport Louise from Lacoste Elementary to meet the doctor at St. Bernard General. But no one could move until the eye of the storm arrived, because they would not be able to withstand the wind.
Once it began crossing town, the truck faced streets scattered with hissing and twisting electrical wires. By the time Alphonso arrived at St. Bernard General Hospital, the back end of the storm was blowing again at full force. The men from Civil Defense formed a human chain and handed the trembling Alphonso man-to-man from the truck to the hospital door. When they all tumbled into the emergency room, the nurse asked to know who was the father. All 10 men from Civil Defense announced that they were the father.
"God, I was so embarrassed," Alphonso says. "I was just a young girl."
Meanwhile her husband, John, had fainted and was stretched out useless on the emergency room floor. In the Red Cross shelter, he had taken one too many inoculations against malaria. If one shot was good, two shots would be better, he reasoned, not realizing that the extra dose would actually make him quite sick.
The nurse helped the pregnant woman onto a gurney, and Louise recalls the freakish piercing light from battery-powered lamps in the otherwise darkened operating room. Betsy pounded like a freight train overhead, and the hospital seemed like a MASH unit at high pitch during a war. When the nurse rolled Louise toward a bed, the door to the operating room swung open and she saw a man with his arm dangling by a thread of skin. Betsy had torn away a piece of tin roof and sent it like a machete on the wind, missing the man's head and taking his arm instead.
"That's when I got all hysterical," says Alphonso. "Started screaming, 'That man is gonna die! Somebody help him! I'm having a baby, but that man is gonna die!'"
The nurse deposited her into a bed and after a quick exam of Alphonso's progress told her not to worry, the baby wouldn't be born for hours. "You're only dilated 3 centimeters yet," the nurse said. Alphonso protested. She had learned from the birth of her first child that maybe for most people 3 centimeters doesn't mean much, but for Louise Alphonso 3 centimeters meant that the baby was coming out right now.
She said as much to the nurse, who didn't believe her. "Look!" Alphonso insisted, and lifted the hem of her dress. Sure enough, the baby's head was beginning to appear.
The nurse tied Alphonso's ankles together with a piece of the sheet to hold the baby in long enough to transport Alphonso back to the operating room. However, as Alphonso teetered half on the bed and half on the gurney, her new baby daughter slipped out, wet and sucking her thumb. The doctor arrived in time to lift the infant into the air and announce with great gusto that the first hurricane baby had been born.
"He's all like hooraying because he's got a hurricane baby born. And I'm thinking, 'Wonderful,'" says Alphonso. "I did this all by myself. Completely natural. I didn't even have Tylenol."
The doctor informed Alphonso that he had decided to name her child Betsy. But he allowed the mother to select a middle name, which is how Betsy Ann came to be.
It was 10 days or more before the water level went down enough for people to return to their homes. It was even longer than that to restore their flooded houses to a livable condition. Those who did not have family or friends with dry homes had to sleep in the shelters at night and forage for supplies during the day, while waiting for the federal government to provide emergency relief in the form of trailers. Louise and John Alphonso were in just such a situation. Louise had sent her husband to get food and clothing. She was still dressed in the same duster she had worn the night she left the house. And her baby was wrapped in a bath towel.
"My husband is a proud man. He doesn't know how to ask for help," says Alphonso. "I had to go myself." So she had to find someone to care for her infant while she worked with her husband to get the family back on its feet.
Enter Claudia Boackle, who was a young teacher at Lacoste Elementary. Her home had been spared flooding, but they had no electricity or food. So she continued coming to the school to volunteer with the Red Cross and brought home a loaf of bread to her parents at the end of each day. One day she came home carrying something that her father thought looked like a loaf of bread. It turned out to be an infant.
"I guess they gave their baby to me because I have an honest face," says Boackle. She and her mother cared for Betsy Ann all day -- the Red Cross provided formula as Alphonso was unable to breast-feed -- and then returned Betsy Ann to her mother at night.
"This was the good part of the storm," says Boackle, who in the intervening years has been invited to Betsy Ann's high school graduation and wedding. "You'd walk down the street and see so many horrible things, but we were happy. We had a baby!"
One of the issues raised in An Evening with Betsy and in any casual rehashing of Hurricane Betsy's devastation is the speculation that the Army Corps of Engineers, at the behest of the city, actually blew up the levee at a certain point in the storm, thus sacrificing the neighborhoods in that vicinity in order to spare the French Quarter from extreme damage. While it is true that the Florida Avenue levee was breached and that led to greater flooding in the Ninth Ward and Chalmette, so far there have only been rumors that this breach was intentional.
The source of the rumors may lie in the collective memory of the 1927 flood, when the city did authorize the destruction of the levees further up river for the ostensible purpose of preserving the more expensive sectors of the city.
"Ever since the 1927 flood, if there's a hurricane scare, people out in St. Bernard start saying they've seen someone putting dynamite into the trunk of the car," says Keith Wagner, the project manager with the Hurricane Protection Program administered by the Army Corps of Engineers. Wagner explains that the levees in 1965 were relatively low and weak, made of trees and mud that had been dredged for the Industrial Canal, and they were overwhelmed by the volume of Gulf water pushed up the river. Plus, he says, the wind created such a harsh chop that it eroded those 965 levees to the breaking point.
Wagner also adds that a hurricane is fast and changeable, and therefore it would be impossible for the Army Corps of Engineers or anyone to direct in a predictable manner where the water would go if the levees were breached. "When the Gulf of Mexico is coming your way, there would be no reason to blow the levee. It would not help," he concludes.
The Army Corps of Engineer's Hurricane Protection Program came into existence as a result of Betsy. It built new levees that are both taller and made of stronger material, designed specifically to resist a fast-moving Category Three hurricane like Betsy. "If we get a storm of greater intensity that stays and pumps a lot of water onto us, then we could have flooding again," Wagner says.
As a representative of the Army Corps of Engineers, Wagner knows very well what went into making the levees, and he believes in the levees. He was only 5 years old when Betsy hit, but he says he remembers it well. He remained in New Orleans during the last hurricane scare with Georges, but he relates that when he saw the empty streets in September of 1998, he decided he would never put himself or his family at risk again. "Really the best plan is to get out of town," he acknowledges.
The survivors of Betsy all say the same thing -- that the slightest threat of a hurricane sends them right out of the city. They won't test their luck a second time. In September of 1965, Gene Ganier was a young man in his early 30s, living in Davant near Pointe A La Hache close to the mouth of the river, where Betsy first made herself known. Ganier had plenty of time to escape Betsy because his father, an old hurricane hand who had been watching the bayou all his life, sensed her coming. Ganier's father and the rest of the family left for higher ground, but Gene and his brother stayed. "In those days we were adventurous," he says. "And I stupidly thought I would enjoy passing the hurricane."
The two young men repaired to a concrete house, which Gene's brother had built between the bayou levee and the river levee. They shared it that first night of the storm with 13 cousins. The men worked all day putting up the mattresses and other perishables into specially built harnesses attached to the ceiling. (Flooding is so commonplace here that most houses have these harnesses.) At the worst of the storm, there was 4 feet of water in the house, and Gene knew he'd made a mistake in staying behind. When the eye was passing at around 2 a.m., he went outside to look around. The sky had cleared. Betsy had arrived on the night of a full moon, which illuminated an astonishing sight.
"The sea surge had stopped the flow of the Mississippi River. The levee had disappeared," reports Gene. "There was no river and no Gulf. You could not define one from the other. It was all one. It was all water."
In the days after the storm, Gene saw other strange things. The natural world had erupted. Snakes coiled on rooftops, and as if by some tacit acknowledgment of their common plight, did not bite the people also waiting on the roof. Red ants boiled up out of the ground and because they had no place else to go, swarmed over any remaining surface -- human or otherwise.
Gene saw a house caught in the branches of a tree. In his cousin's home, he found the refrigerator upside down, but a carton of eggs that his cousin had left on the kitchen counter had not moved. Nor had a single egg broken.
They ate boiled eggs for days. While walking along the levee, Gene tripped over what he thought was a dead rat. Closer inspection revealed this to be a man's hand. A neighbor had been crushed into the mud by his own house. A boat traveled 65 miles from its original owner berthed itself in Gene's front yard. It still stands there today. And when Gene found his family's house had moved 15 feet off its foundation, he sat down on a log and cried.
"That house looked like it had been tortured," he says.
It took several days for Gene and his brother to catch a tugboat to Gretna to find their family. When they did catch up with their sister, she was holding a copy of the States-Item with the screaming headline: "Pointe A La Hache: No Survivors." She cried with relief when she saw her brothers, which she had taken for dead.
"My dad didn't think we were dead," says Gene now. "He didn't believe that there were no survivors."
Even with all these images burned into his memory, Gene says that he would not leave New Orleans permanently -- hurricanes or no hurricanes. He did go to California for work many years ago, but then he returned to New Orleans, claiming, "I'll take a hurricane two times a day over any earthquake. That thing just about scared the life out of me."
He echoes the sentiments of the other storytellers and survivors of Betsy when he points out that there is no safe place in the world. In the North they have blizzards, and out West they have tornadoes. It's better to stay in New Orleans and deal with the devil you know. If nothing else, Betsy brought with her one lasting gift: she took away the illusion of safety.
"The one word you cannot escape from is 'home,'" Gene Ganier concludes. "You just have to decide what is home and fight it out there."