Betsy experience in no way
prepared us for Katrina’s horrors
By BRAD WARTHEN
Editorial Page Editor
I THOUGHT I knew what to expect from Hurricane Katrina. Boy, was I wrong.
You see, I was there, at Ground Zero, for the last big blow to hit the Big Easy. That was Hurricane Betsy, 40 years ago.
In fact, that experience at such a young age — I was starting junior high — is probably why I have such a jaded attitude toward weather. Or at least did have.
I tended to sneer at people getting all worked up because a storm’s coming. And I definitely didn’t need those warnings that interrupt regular TV programming. Hey, I know when there’s going to be a thunderstorm — our remaining dog freaks out, yelping and demanding to come in. I did not share his attitude; as I saw it, the lawn could use the watering.
And when I saw folks evacuate in the path of a storm that may strike their domiciles, I sniffed in a superior manner and thought:
We didn’t run and hide back in ’65. We stood our ground — however untenable that ground may have been. We lived in an old barracks that had been converted into apartments for naval officers and their families — a big frame target that the Big Bad Wolf could probably have huffed and puffed away without trying too hard. It was located about a block from the Mississippi River levee, on a nearly defunct Navy base in Algiers, right across the river from the heart of New Orleans.
The base had most likely been a very busy place during in the war that had ended two decades earlier. But you sure couldn’t tell that at the time I lived there. The base’s vital purpose was a thing of the misty past, and of no interest to a preteen. The base I knew was mostly abandoned buildings (for exploring, if you could dodge the Shore Patrol) and huge, empty fields for playing ball.
My Dad was executive officer on the USS Hyman, DD-732, an old Sumner-class destroyer that was there to train reservists on weekends. That and an old diesel submarine were the only ships moored at the base.
The night Betsy hit, Dad was aboard his ship, firmly held in place in the river by cables fore, aft and amidships, and with the engines fired up and running. (There hadn’t been time to put out to sea.) He and the crew spent the night trying to avoid being hit by civilian craft that hadn’t taken such precautions. They still got hit a couple of times. He recalls the shock on the bridge as one freighter headed upriver at eight or nine knots — breakneck speed in that sharply meandering stretch — particularly when the watch realized it was being blown against the current, with no one at the helm.
My mother, brother and I spent the night in our rickety home with our flashlights and bathtubs full of water, listening to the wind tear and crack and howl around us. We experienced the eerie stillness of the eye passing over, then listened to the fury all over again, only in the opposite direction (at which point we closed windows that were now on the windward side, and opened the ones on the lee). I don’t recall being any more scared than I would have been on a ride at the Lake Ponchartrain amusement park. At my age, it was an adventure, and not to be missed.
The next day, we saw what the storm had done. Enormous, aromatic red cedar trees across the street in my best friend Tim Moorman’s yard — his dad was a captain, so they rated a big house — were snapped in two. (We pulled off big shards and put them in our closets.) The only damage our apartment sustained was a rip to the screen on our porch, although other apartments in the building suffered from holes in the roof.
I soon learned we had been among the lucky ones. Fifteen thousand civilian refugees — Ponchartrain spilled over that time, too — were housed for months in the base’s unused buildings and a mobile home village that filled the empty fields.
My Dad’s destroyer was for several days New Orleans’ only official communication link with the outside world. (We weren’t able to call folks in South Carolina to say we were OK for a week.) The ship was called upon to help find a barge full of chlorine that had been lost — which Dad remembers as the most fouled-up operation he ever took part in. After the ship’s sonar and divers had located about a hundred other barges sunk by the storm, the one they sought was found in the one place everyone assumed the civilians had already looked: Right where it had been moored. The chlorine containers were intact.
So all was well in the end. We had withstood nature’s worst (I thought), and life went on.
I had thought Katrina would be pretty much the same — especially with all the advance warning that modern technology provides. Sure, it was almost a Category 5 while Betsy was merely a 3, but the city only got brushed by the back side of the storm this time.
And yet, as we’ve tried to take in the scope of this disaster in the last few days — thousands dead, devastation of apocalyptic proportions across several states — it overwhelms the mind.
This has to be the worst disaster to hit the mainland United States in my lifetime. When was the last time a major city of this proportion had to be abandoned, possibly for months? And we still don’t fully know how bad things are in the less-populated areas that took the main brunt of this nightmare.
This horror is so wide and profound that I really don’t know where to grab hold of it for an editorial point. Certainly, we should all seize any opportunity we can identify to reach out and help the victims. Beyond that, I really don’t know what to say.
But from now on, I’m going to be less nonchalant about weather. Next time the dog starts yelping about a rising wind, rather than telling him to hush and calm down, I just may join him.
Betsy experience in no way