Memories of Betsy

The carpet was rough against my skin. I slept on the floor because most of my family, half of my neighborhood in Golden Meadow, was crammed into one hotel room in New Orleans. I woke up in the middle of the night when my little cousin who had not yet six months began to bawl. His bed was two armchairs facing each other. His mother comforted him and I went back to sleep rubbing my hand on this rough carpet. I felt the floor moving and I didn’t find it strange. It rocked me back to sleep. When the sun came in through the window a few hours later the next morning, my sister and I pressed our faces against the glass several floors above. The drenched street below was completely deserted, debris everywhere and broken panes of glass at the Kastle Burger on Baronne. It was September 10, 1965, I was six and Betsy had just gone through. These are some of my memories of our evacuation to the Roosevelt Hotel. The adults said that we could not go home, if we still had a house, not before a few days, not until the water had receded and certainly not before we had news from the men in the family. My godfather, who was with us because he drove the women and children to New Orleans in the last car to cross the bridge of the Mississippi, believed the government had seeded the hurricane; that is why we had never seen one so frightening.

I do not know how many days we stayed there, but news began trickling in. All our relatives had survived; our house was still there, but it had taken water, so much so that my father had found fat crabs and a snake in it. The National Guard was going to tell us when we could return. We eventually returned home to find our house and our neighborhood had fared relatively well. We had a house, but not much else: no electricity, no food and no clean water. The flickering of the flame, the light and shadows of the hurricane lamps remain in my memory. Often after a hurricane, the weather turns torrid; post-Betsy lived up to the rule. Trying to find large blocks of ice occupied a lot of our time. Cool air was scarce. One night, unable to take the heat more, the whole family went to sit at the front of the lane near the bayou in the hope of catching a breeze. It would not have been surprising except for the fact we were in our underwear. We stayed there until the National Guard came by to invite us to respect the curfew and go home. I do not know what they thought of us.

Despite the destruction and shortages around us, life resumed. The merchant Duffy Lafont with his eponymous store, Duffy's Supermarket, reopened as soon as possible. There are not many products to offer and the back walls had separated at a corner. I cannot imagine an owner today that would let people go into his store in that shape, but we lacked everything and Mr. Lafont was doing everything possible to help the community. This is just a small example among thousands of the culture of solidarity that allowed us, once again, to overcome tragedy.For a child of six, these were rather fun experiences. With fifty years of hindsight, they evoke a strange nostalgia. Now I realize that we were luckier than others. We stayed three weeks without electricity, the people in Pointe-aux-Saucisses much longer. Some had lost everything; most had little to start with. The rest, all covered in mold, was thrown into the bayou. In all, 81 people died and the destruction amounted to 1.42 billion dollars in 1965, ten times more in today's money. There are other hurricanes before and after that did more damage, like Katrina and Rita whose tenth anniversary we commemorate also, but it was Betsy who first rocked me in her cruel arms.


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