Remembering Hurricane Betsy, a New Orleans nightmare
On the morning of Sept. 9, 1965, New Orleans was holding its collective breath. The monster Hurricane Betsy, which had just hammered the Bahamas and south Florida, had entered the Gulf of Mexico. And while it looked for a time like it might be headed for Texas, sparing the Bayou State the worst of the storm, by midday it was clear it was training its sights on the Crescent City. At around 10 p.m. that night, it roared ashore at Grand Isle, just south of New Orleans. It would go down as the most destructive storm in Louisiana history to that point.
Every June 1, hurricane season starts anew and locals are prompted to prepare for the worst — stocking up on water, batteries and nonperishable food, and planning an evacuation route. Those who remember the harrowing hammering of Betsy don’t need to be told twice. Even more than 50 years later, that name still holds legendary status in south Louisiana, serving as a scar-memory of the utter devastation hurricanes can wreak.
- Betsy was a Category 3 storm when it made landfall in Louisiana, with wind gusts measured at 145 mph and sustained winds exceeding 110 mph. It left nothing more than foundations and debris in Grand Isle, and it washed fishing villages such as Yscloskey and Delacroix Island off the map.
- The storm didn’t hit New Orleans directly. Rather, it passed just to the west. But while its winds toppled trees and power lines — causing widespread outages — the storm surge pushed water back up the Mississippi, which rose 8 feet in four hours, and into Lake Pontchartrain. That resulted in levee breaches on both sides of the Industrial Canal, inundating the 9th Ward, St. Bernard, New Orleans East and the area between Franklin Avenue and the Industrial Canal.
- Because the storm hit in the dead of night, countless New Orleanians awoke to find their homes already flooded. To flee, many sought higher ground in their attics, where some drowned as waters rose. That prompted the tradition among many locals to keep a hatchet in their attic in case of storms.
- Betsy claimed 75 lives in Louisiana, in addition to five in Florida and one in the Bahamas. Locally, it also caused more than $1.2 billion in damage, making it the first billion-dollar hurricane in U.S. history.
- On Sept. 10, just hours after the storm had moved through the city, President Lyndon Johnson visited New Orleans, where he met with Mayor Vic Schiro — who wore a borrowed firefighter’s raincoat — as well as victims of the storm. “The nation grieves for its neighbors in Louisiana,” Johnson said after surveying the damage. “But this state will build its way out of its sorrow — and the national government will be at Louisiana’s side to help every step of the way.”
- Nearly a half-million people in south Louisiana fled ahead of the storm, in what The Times-Picayune at the time called “the largest single evacuation project in the region’s history.”
- It wasn’t the first hurricane to be named Betsy. Previously, the name had been used for a storm in 1956, which hit Puerto Rico and the U.S. East Coast, and another in 1961, which never made landfall. Due to the extent of the damage of the 1965 storm, the name was retired following the 1965 hurricane season.
- Betsy was key in building the reputation of revered New Orleans weather forecaster Nash Roberts, as he was one of the few people to correctly predict the path of the storm and that of Hurricane Camille four years later. For decades, he was considered among the most trusted men in the city.
- Hurricane season, which starts June 1 — that’s Thursday — lasts until Nov. 30.
One of the direct results of Hurricane Betsy was construction of a massive flood-protection system by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, designed to prevent a repeat of the widespread flooding caused by the storm. For 40 years, it held — and for 40 years Hurricane Betsy was the storm by which all other hurricanes were measured in New Orleans. Then came 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, which laid bare the inadequacies of that federal levee system, in the process giving New Orleans a new hurricane high-water mark.