I was 13 years old, and I had never seen anyone fire a handgun up close.
Of course in the previous few days I had seen a lot of things for the first time, including floodwater rising into my brick duplex house on Caffin Avenue in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, boats on city streets, and maybe strangest of all, my family and I taking part in looting a supermarket at the corner with a mob of others.
That was when I first saw someone fire a handgun.
It was a National Guardsman or maybe a sailor. He fired into the ceiling of Puglia’s Supermarket a block-and-a-half from my home on Caffin to make us stop taking food as we stood in floodwater.
Yes, things were certainly different in those first few days after Hurricane Betsy delivered a frightening blow to my world Sept. 9, 1965, and the early morning hours of the next day, when the Industrial Canal levee broke and the flooding started.
The 50th anniversary of Betsy brought a lot of memories back into focus for me.
Being a young sports fanatic at the time, I vividly recall the other historic moment from that day. I came home from school and heard on TV that the great Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers, whom I had seen pitch earlier that summer at the new Houston Astrodome, had thrown a perfect game that afternoon, beating the Chicago Cubs, 1-0.
My dad, Lee Cannizaro, and Uncle Mike Cannizaro, who lived in the other side of the duplex, had prepared the properties as best they could for the approaching hurricane.
We lived on a little Cannizaro compound in the 1200 block of Caffin. We also rented a wooden double shotgun house next door and had a back cottage for my Maw Maw and Paw Paw, John and Dora Cannizaro.
Next door to our shotgun house was the home of legendary musician Fats Domino, who built his mansion in the 1950s.
My younger brother, Gary, 10, and I listened to the rain and winds that swirled that afternoon and evening. The electricity went out, and we had to fight to keep rain from blowing under our side door.
My mother, Christine, was a nurse on the evening shift at Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital and couldn’t leave work. Like others over the region, we listened by transistor radio to reports about the storm. Eventually, we came to believe the worst was over and drifted off to sleep, only to be awakened by floodwaters.
Carrying our two dogs, we walked to Holy Cross School, where I was a student, to join other evacuees.
My mother met us there the next day and we went back to Caffin Avenue. We couldn’t go to the flooded homes but went to the rental property, which was raised and hadn’t flooded.
That’s where we lived until the water went down.
Most cars had flooded, so few people could drive anywhere. But word spread that people were taking canned goods at nearby Puglia’s Supermarket.
My brother, cousins and I went there and found a small mob stripping shelves.
That ended when the guy fired the handgun into the ceiling and ordered everyone out. It truly scared me and drove home something I hadn’t really thought about: We were doing something illegal.
I learned there is truth about a mob psychology taking over, creating an atmosphere in which you do something you otherwise wouldn’t have.
The store reopened after Betsy and remained open for years, although it closed before Katrina. And just in the past month the building was suddenly torn down and the land cleared.
Now there’s just the memory of what once happened there.
— Cannizaro lives in St. Bernard Parish.
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