The narrative seems eerily familiar today.
People had settled into their houses for the night, bracing for a powerful hurricane to blow through New Orleans.
Then the floodwaters came.
Lower 9th Ward resident Elizabeth Cousins Rogers stepped out of bed into knee-deep water on that night in 1965. While she and her husband scrambled to get dressed, the situation worsened rapidly, she wrote later:
“The water became waist-deep. The bed floated. Chest of drawers quietly slumped forward; the drawers floated out. An empty garbage can from the kitchen floated by.”
The couple opened the front door of their house on St. Maurice Avenue and ran into the water, headed toward the higher ground nearer to the river.
On Sept. 9, 1965 — 50 years ago Wednesday — Hurricane Betsy, a Category 4 storm, blew into New Orleans and created tides 14 feet above sea level.
The city’s back levees broke open — some still say they were dynamited — flooding the Lower 9th Ward, parts of Gentilly, the 7th Ward and early eastern New Orleans neighborhoods like Plum Orchard.
As with the 2005 flood, many lost priceless possessions. The 1965 waters submerged the home of Ruby Bridges, one of four little girls who desegregated the city’s school system in 1960, ruining all the letters and cards she’d received from around the world, including one from former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Juanita Allen still carries vivid memories of her horrifying Hurricane Betsy experience, though she was only 6 at the time. “I can remember it like yesterday,” she said.
When the water came, Allen’s parents first put their children on top of tall pieces of furniture to keep them out of danger. When that wasn’t enough, her father fetched a ladder and helped his pregnant wife and six young children, one by one, to the safety of a small cupola on the roof of the house.
Juanita was the last child to go up the ladder, but as she and her father got to the roof, he slipped and she slipped with him. Her mother desperately reached over and caught Juanita by her braid, pulling her to safety. But her father fell to his death.
He became one of Betsy’s estimated 57 New Orleans casualties. Across the Gulf Coast, the deaths totaled 75.
The human toll of Betsy’s aftermath shocked many into action, including President Lyndon Johnson. Its financial effects also were far-reaching: Betsy wreaked damage totaling more than $1.4 billion on parts of Louisiana, Florida and Mississippi.
The congressional response to it created some precedents for policies implemented 40 years later, after Hurricane Katrina and the catastrophic levee failures of 2005.
For instance, it was after Betsy that the city’s federal levee system was expanded, though — as became clear after Katrina — its design was faulty and its construction poorly executed. And two months after Betsy struck, the Congress allocated some federal money for individual disaster victims, forgiving $1,800 in Small Business Administration loans per person and appropriating $70 million to help farmers and schools recover and to recommend better ways of providing assistance to natural-disaster victims.
Though SBA data show that one-quarter of the city’s poorest did not qualify for the SBA loans, the so-called Betsy Bill was viewed as a start, enacted by sympathetic federal officials.
“There is a need for special measures designed to aid and accelerate … highways and public works projects, and to otherwise rehabilitate these devastated areas,” read the bill, the Southeast Hurricane Disaster Relief Act of 1965, which was enacted in November, two months after the storm.
Evacuating across the river
Hattie Mae Craft, 92, who still lives in the Lower 9th Ward, remembers Elizabeth and Walter Rogers as elderly white residents in a mostly black neighborhood who always wore tennis shoes, uncommon for the time, and who let neighborhood children read books in their living room on St. Maurice.
At the time Betsy hit, Elizabeth was 74 and Walter was 65. The two were seasoned activists who put their connections and organizing skills to work when the hard-hit area began to rebuild.
“They were our friends, and they helped us all the way,” said Craft, who may be the only surviving member of a group called the Betsy Flood Victims.
During the six days that saltwater and sewage sat in the Lower 9th Ward and for some time afterward, the Crafts and their seven children stayed alongside the Rogerses in the unused Algiers Naval Base, where roughly 14,000 displaced people lived, ate, slept and received medical care for nearly three weeks.
“As we came in, the day was sunny, at last,” Elizabeth Rogers wrote in a 23-page typewritten account that is part of the Special Collections section at the Earl K. Long Library at the University of New Orleans.
Clean laundry, laundered by hand in buckets, flapped from the base’s high fences, Rogers wrote. “Everyone was rushing to wash off the filth of Betsy. This wasn’t easy, as there were few utensils and only two faucets for the 5,000 at our end of the base.”
Anita Yesho discovered Rogers’ account after Katrina, when she was a graduate assistant for UNO historian Michael Mizell-Nelson. Together, the two of them wrote an introduction to the narrative and posted it to the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, which Mizell-Nelson developed with George Mason University.
“The parallels between Katrina and Betsy were obvious,” said Yesho, who made dozens of copies of Rogers’ narrative and gave them to friends during that time.
Yet, as Rogers’ painstaking account of hurricane recovery makes clear, the differences between the two storms are as stark as the parallels.
Though Betsy evacuees received little aid, they were not displaced across the nation. Instead, they were kept from their homes only until the water receded and their neighborhoods had been searched for bodies, which took roughly a week in most places, according to newspaper accounts. As a result, the Algiers shelter was open for less than a month, Rogers wrote.
A small broom and pail
There, in large hangars, people slept wherever they could find space for their cots and lined up regularly for meals prepared by Navy and Army cooks. Medical care was free; everyone was injected for diphtheria and tetanus, and those who had contracted diarrhea from ingesting floodwater were given medicine. Bales of donated used clothing came in from across the nation, which allowed most people to find something clean to wear.
Through a Red Cross station at the Stallings Center on St. Claude Avenue, families received modest vouchers, between $400 and $1,000, that allowed them to replace some furniture and appliances — but they had to spend the whole voucher in the same store on the same day.
Though crowded together and suffering from losses, people found ways to rejoice in life, Rogers wrote: “Resourceful nuns cleaned huge garbage cans, filled them with warm water and washed the babies in the open air, a sight that made us long for our lost camera. Devoted teachers from elementary schools came for games and exercises with restless youngsters.”
In many ways, those at the naval base were both isolated and focused on what lay ahead.
“None of us knew a Congressional hearing was going on in New Orleans, no victims invited. We were all thinking of the thick slime on our walls and woodwork, the buckled floors, grimed windows, dismembered furniture, filthy mattresses — all the prized possessions now useless, many still unpaid for,” Rogers wrote.
When families left the base, each was given a “small broom and pail” to clean their homes.
Some people, including Rogers, were derisive about the small gesture, Craft said: “We needed much more than that. But I appreciated it. We had mud in our house and didn’t have anything to clean it.”
She recalls how her husband, like flocks of neighbors, scraped and shoveled the mud off floors, then washed everything down with a hose. “We didn’t want our children to inhale the filth,” she said, noting that, despite the relatively brief displacement, some of her neighbors chose not to rebuild, terrified that the water would return.
It was at that time that Rogers, Craft and others launched the Betsy Flood Victims group to demand food stamps for survivors. Hunger had become desperate, to the point that newspaper accounts noted that police were stationed at the Agriculture Street dump and other places to prevent people from trying to salvage the spoiled food from refrigerators that were being dumped there.
‘I’m your president’
On the day after Betsy blew through New Orleans, U.S. Sen. Russell Long, of Louisiana, called his old friend President Johnson at 1:36 p.m. “Mr. President, aside from the Great Lakes, the biggest lake in America is Lake Pontchartrain,” Long said. “It is now drained dry. That Hurricane Betsy picked up the lake and put it inside New Orleans and Jefferson Parish.”
Long, who had just become Senate majority whip, urged the president to visit New Orleans. And by 5:36 p.m., four hours after Long’s call, Air Force One was landing in New Orleans with Long and U.S. Rep. Hale Boggs on board, among others.
Johnson was particularly struck by a visit to the de facto Upper 9th Ward shelter on St. Claude Avenue, George Washington Elementary School, now called Arise Academy. There was no electricity, and it was dark and hot. People also were thirsty because the tap water wasn’t safe.
At first, those in the shelter were skeptical about their visitor’s identity. So Johnson lit up his face with a flashlight. “I’m your president and I’m here to help,” he said.
From then on, Johnson took a personal interest in the city’s recovery. The following week, in a phone conversation with Long and Robert Phillips, of the Louisiana Office of Emergency Planning, Johnson urged quick action.
“We’ve got to cut out all the red tape,” he said. “We’ve got to work around the clock.”
Any government turf battles should be put aside, the president instructed Phillips. “The people who have lost their homes, people who’ve lost their furniture, people who’ve lost some of their crops and even their families are not going to be very interested in any individual differences between federal or state or local agencies,” Johnson said.
Sandbagging a leak
In August 1966, the Betsy Flood Victims group sent a memo to the City Council asking for more help. “We didn’t flood ourselves,” they wrote.
Early on, the group had warned about loan sharks offering quick money that allowed them to take residents’ homes. The members rode city buses, gathering a total of 3,239 signatures for their demands: adequate levees; loan forgiveness for hard-hit homeowners unable to make mortgage payments; and $10,000 grants to rebuild damaged houses.
The group also secured a “Betsy Damage Report” from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that showed the agency hadn’t alerted residents about a known gap in the Industrial Canal levee. “Three members were sent to the Industrial Canal to sandbag a leak that had developed in the levee,” the report read. “This group continued to work until the winds made it impracticable to continue the sandbagging.”
Though the Flood Victims group had few legislative victories, they had success with some practical demands, such as for removal of the mounds of sodden detritus, some of which sat untouched until June 1966, when the feds agreed to pay 90 percent of the cost to complete the work. The group also helped organize college students sent by the American Friends Service Committee, who organized cleanup squads and built a playground.
In the end, for those who couldn’t qualify for SBA loans, no federal money materialized.
“Betsy — we didn’t get nothing, hardly, for Betsy,” remembers Craft, the secretary and perhaps lone survivor of the Flood Victims group, which met each week at Mercy Seat Baptist Church for more than a year after the storm. She and her husband, a driver for the James J. Reiss candy company, rebuilt piece by piece with their own money.
Though both Elizabeth and Walter Rogers died in the 1980s, the Craft family is still centered in the Lower 9th Ward. After Katrina, Hattie Mae’s daughter, Alice Craft-Kerney, a registered nurse, opened the Lower 9th Ward Health Clinic with fellow nurse Patricia Berryhill.
In those post-Katrina days, Hattie Mae Craft wished that she could again tackle her muddied house with a bucket and a broom. Instead, she was forced to rebuild after her home on Lamanche Street left its foundation and floated almost an entire block.
“Betsy was bad,” Craft said. “But it can’t even begin to compare to Katrina.”