“Mr. President, aside from the Great Lakes, the biggest lake in America is Lake Pontchartrain. It is now drained dry. That Hurricane Betsy picked the lake up and put it inside New Orleans and Jefferson Parish …. My wife and kids are still alive, so it’s OK…. Mr. President, … we need your help.” Senator Russell Long to President Lyndon Johnson , September 10, 1965, 2:26 p.m. Citation #8847, WH6509.03. LBJ Library
I was useless. Cranky from a low fever and tonsillitis coming on, and scared of something outside called Betsy that had Mama in a panic and voices squawking out of Daddy’s ham radio – she’s comin’ straight at’chya. My brother hauled whole drawers upstairs and my sister swept up armloads of dolls and everybody was short tempered in their haste to get their treasures to safety. Shooed out of the way, I laid down in my clothes to suck my thumb and listen to the mimosa tree beat against my window, begging me to let it in and put it with the dolls and Mama’s silver and Daddy’s books, safe from Betsy.
When I opened my eyes the next morning, grey light colored the windows. My leg was straight up in the air and Mama was cramming a sneaker on my foot, saying grab your raincoat and get upstairs!
The carpet was a wet sponge that squished underfoot, and water lapped up the walls and filled the hallway like a stretch-bathtub. Betsy was gone, but the spillway, overwhelmed with the water she sucked out of Lake Pontchartrain and dumped into the Industrial Canal, couldn’t hold.
Four years old and in denial of having a sore throat, I saw a pool, an adventure – a party! Miss Laverne and her girls had already waded over. More neighbors and playmates arrived, wet, anxious, and confused. Instead of drinking coffee and pouring cereal, they were sloshing across the street in water up to their chests, mamas holding their babies high to avoid snakes and crabs. The men went to Mr. Pete’s Texaco on the corner for gasoline to fuel up their johnboats. We had the only two story house in the neighborhood, the highest point for blocks. Everybody came, and our foyer became a harbor with a chandelier. Daddy opened the double cypress front doors to let the boats sidle up to our staircase, now a pier. Those of us without a care played hide and seek or played with each others’ dogs.
Daddy hugged us goodbye and kissed Mama, telling her everything would be okay, no looters would take anything while he had shells for the shotgun. Mr. Richards hoisted my sister and me above his hipboots like wriggling crab traps and dropped us into a rescue boat.
Quarantined on the third floor of Domino’s Sugar Refinery – my brother had the same fever as me – we had a public water fountain, canned creamed corn and grape popsicles, bare bulbs that stayed lit day and night, and empty boxes to sleep under. But us kids owe our survival to Mama’s presence of mind to grab her purse, filled with Doublemint gum, cigarettes and – thank you Jesus! – a new lighter. If only those grape popsicles could’ve turned into wine….
Three days later the National Guard moved us in a caravan uptown to St. Charles Avenue and the Times Picayune snapped our picture as we were unloaded. Strangers – I’ve never learned their names – took us in, gave us their bathtubs and fed us hot soup and gifted us with clean underwear – boys’ underwear. My brother didn’t mind, but my sister and I did.
Our family’s touchpoint is Betsy. Mama will say “Oh, we lost that in The Flood,” and immediately I’m four again and my throat hurts. It was months before we lived together as a family again, back in our home. We had nothing, but after what we lived through, we had everything in each other. We really didn’t lose that much in The Flood.
I visited my old house just last June. Mr. Frank’s house that was next door is now a weedy, concrete slab. Concrete footprints like that are sprinkled between homes that still sport the black demolition ‘X’. Looters got our chandelier, but the mimosa tree still stands by my old bedroom window. My cousins who run the lumber company my great grandfather started over one hundred years ago remain in ‘da parish’. They painted one color on the walls up to twelve feet – Katrina’s water line. And yes, they’ve met Brad Pitt.
Pamela Mason has survived more hurricanes since Betsy, but if she can survive raising her two sons, that will be a real accomplishment! She writes New Orleans romance – sweet, spicy, and HOT! When she’s not writing down her characters’ stories, she’s writing her experiences on WriterMason.com and BetterAfter50.com. She lives outside Atlanta in Georgia’s tornado alley.