Hurricane Betsy hit Louisiana on the night of September 9, 1965. The 40-mile eye hurricane whipped up 160 miles per hour winds as it hit land just west of the Mississippi River. Southern Florida had been one of its first victims. Grand Isle, Louisiana, was virtually destroyed with nothing but foundations and debris left in the hurricane's wake. Baton Rouge saw the river swell to 15.5 feet.
And at New Orleans, the Mississippi rose to 10 feet. Lake Pontchartrain swelled beyond its banks causing even more flooding. Hundreds of trees were snapped in two in the French Quarter. The parishes of St. Bernard and Plaquemines were devastated. On Flood Street, all that could be seen were the tops of the houses, the street sign barely poking out above the water level.
One hundred and sixty four thousand Orleanians were left homeless, searching for shelter. Ninety percent of the city lost power. Dozens of ships were sunk or run aground as a result of Betsy's wrath. Eleven shipwrecks completely blocked part of the Mississippi River. The death toll in Louisiana and Florida reached 75.
By the next day, President Lyndon B. Johnson was on board Air Force One flying to Louisiana. With evacuees gathered around him in a New Orleans shelter, Johnson illuminated his face with a flashlight, introduced himself, and pledged to give Louisiana whatever help it needed, just the words that Betsy's victims needed to hear, given the 1.5 billion dollars in damage the storm had incurred.
Betsy received press across the country and around the world. Aid poured in. The National Red Cross pledged support. One photograph shows three Roman Catholic priests floating by a crumpled house in their rowboat. Texas blues legend Lightnin' Hopkins wrote a song to remember the tragedy simply titled "Hurricane Betsy".
It took a full ten days for the water levels to recede. Evacuees left the shelters and moved into trailers temporarily. The U.S. Army rolled into town to start building levees to protect New Orleans in the event of another hurricane. And we know how that story turned out. Sadly the levees, built to withstand a fast moving hurricane, did not stop Katrina, which hit land on August 29, 2005. For the elderly residents, it would be a complete feeling of deja-vu.
To hear Lightnin' Hopkins' song "Hurricane Besty" visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8idFEcXIQ5Y.