Remembrance of Hurricanes Past

By Joe Darby

As thousands of our fellow Louisianians continue to cope without power and dealing with badly damaged or destroyed homes and businesses, my thoughts turn to hurricanes I have experienced in the past.

Yesterday’s 56th anniversary of Hurricane Betsy, which blew in on Sept. 9, 1965, also helped evoke some memories.

The first severe hurricane I remember was known as the Hurricane of 1947 because that was before the great storms started to receive names. I would have been almost 6 and my only real recollection of it is going to the gymnasium of St. Gerard’s School in Baton Rouge for shelter during the storm. The brick gym was thought to be more substantial than our small wooden house at the time. But I don’t recall any major damage to our home once we returned. However, that storm did do fairly widespread damage in New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

Then, except for Audrey being a killer storm in southwest Louisiana in 1957, almost 20 years of relative quiet went by before Betsy came slamming into Louisiana in 1965. I had been working as a reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune for only eight months. The editors sent reporter-photographer teams all over southeast Louisiana because the exact path of the storm could not be predicted as accurately as they can today.

I was sent to Thibodaux with a very good, experienced photographer named Phil Guarisco. As we approached the town, his big Pontiac sedan was rocked heavily by the growing winds. By the time we arrived in Thibodaux, the weather was raging and as I was running into the parish courthouse, a gust of wind blew my raincoat out like a parachute and actually lifted me a foot or so off the ground. We, along with local officials, spent the night in the strong old structure but went out the next morning to see downtown Thibodaux heavily damaged. I remember writing in my account that it looked like the town had been bombed by airplanes.

After I returned to New Orleans I saw that my car, a 1959 Sunbeam Alpine sports car that I’d left parked on Esplanade Avenue, had had a very close call. A huge tree from the avenue’s neutral ground had fallen just behind my vehicle and some of its outer branches were actually touching the back of the car, although it suffered no damage. I remember also looking across the courtyard of my apartment into an adjacent building. And I do mean looking into. The entire side wall had collapsed and you could see every room inside, like looking into a doll house. Most of the furniture appeared safe and undisturbed.

A day or so later I accompanied a tour of the Lower Ninth Ward in a National Guard amphibious vehicle and recall seeing the devastation that that unfortunate area had suffered from severe flooding. One more memory I will share. A friend of mine, another reporter, lived in St. Bernard Parish, which was completely inundated.
Once the waters went down he returned to his house and opened the refrigerator door, only to see a couple of snakes slither out. What a welcome home!

In 1969 Hurricane Camille came along and did some damage in New Orleans but wrecked the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I was a junior editor then and did not go out into the field to cover that storm.

Then we had another long quiescent period. My girls were born in 1972 and 1974 and the whole time they were growing up we never had to evacuate, so they were lucky in not having experienced any bad storms when they were young.

And next was the Big One, Katrina on Aug. 29, 2005. There had been a few close calls for New Orleans in the years immediately preceding 2005 and my wife Mary and I evacuated to Natchitoches two or three times. We came up here to get away from Katrina also and stayed at the late Bobby DeBlieux’s Tante Huppe guest house. We’d stayed with him before and the more we got to know Bobby, the more we liked him.

Anyway, at the time we lived in Gretna on the West Bank and suffered only minor roof damage, unlike 80 percent of the east bank, which as you know, was underwater for days. We all remember the horrible conditions in the city but Mary and I managed to avoid them. When Bobby had to ask us to leave because he had folks coming in with room reservations, Mary and I stayed with various relatives in the Baton Rouge area until I was able to return to our house, while Mary stayed in Baton Rouge for a while. For the next few weeks I played a small part in covering the aftermath of that horrible natural disaster.

And finally, Ida spread her devastation late last month. My only involvement was worrying about my girls and some friends who still live in New Orleans but all came out okay. I hope this is the last “big one” for a while. But that doesn’t seem likely from what the scientists are telling us. However, here’s a heart-felt Good Luck wish to all Louisianians who remain in harms way from those storms.

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