Betsy Wetsy Breaks Wind

The United States' First Billion Dollar Hurricane

Bummer in the Summer

So what happened to the levees?
Why wasn’t they steady?
Why wasn’t they able to control this?
I know some folks who live by the levee
they keep on telling me said they heard explosions
same s**t happened back in Hurricane Betsy in 1965
I ain’t too young to know this
that was President Johnson
but this is President Georgia…Bush!

                                 --Lil Wayne "Georgia Bush" (about Katrina)

The parallel to a baby's sonogram was seen by a TIROS weather satellite on August 23, 1965. Four days later a tropical depression was noted by a weather airplane near Cape Verde, west of the Leeward Islands. Only later would they know that Betsy was born.

Born Under a Bad Sign

She grew up fast, as by late afternoon she was a tropical storm moving fifteen miles an hour towards the west north-west. The next day the baby cyclone, now named Betsy, was moving and getting stronger another five miles per, along the Lesser Antilles.

I Like to Live in America

The next day, the 29th of August, she was a full-blown hurricane going north towards Puerto Rico 200 miles away. But, making a circuitous move 275 miles in the area north of that U.S. Territory, it diminished back to a tropical storm.

Unfortunately, Betsy was just taking a little nap, and when she woke up (I guess for the school bells) on September first, she re-energized back into a hurricane, and began her mischievous path to the west, 350 miles from Daytona Beach. Observers tracking her parallel movement to the Bahamas gave rise to predictions thinking she would continue to take her 30 degree northern track, like most do following the Gulf Stream towards the Carolinas.

Woman, Thy Name is Frailty (Not)

Fickle by nature, she wanted another new name, Capricious, and on September 4, (with the aide of a Eastern Seaboard blocking high front giving her a shove to the southwest), she made almost a 180, and headed for some fun in the Sunshine State. On the seventh, she brushed Nassau, and Andros in the Bahamas, whispering her sweet nothings at 126 mile per hour and lingering for three hours; and the next day after blowing 147 mph WSW kisses (some report 178!) to Abaco Island, she was ready for Key Largo. There she had slowed back down to 126 mph, and was down to 120 in Tavernier, and 100 in Big Pine Key. But, that's okay, she was 600 miles wide now, her eye itself was 40 miles across! She would drop the barometric pressure down to 27.76 inches (gives me a headache just thinking of that.)

South Beach Diet

Fort Lauderdale, Florida and Miami, Florida further north, though not in the direct path, felt 6 foot storm surges. While Miami got 92 and 105 mph NNE gusts, they also endured flooding, Key Biscayne was almost totally underwater. Fort Lauderdale's New River went downtown, many homes were wrecked, especially on Las Olas, while not only was the beach inundated, but so was route A1A nearby.

We've Only Just Begun

Surely she must be spent, nah, she got a teeny bit tired after hitting Big Pine Key when she roared back up to 125 mph, so she only had 81 mph to throw at Key West. But on that tiny island, with no place to go, it was terrifying. September 8 and then the 9th are dates those folks will always remember. Now where and what was Betsy going to go and do?

Battle of New Orleans

On September 9th Betsy was feeling perky in the Gulf of Mexico and she was reveling as a 160 mph Category 4 Hurricane; and wanted to party hearty in New Orleans by nightime, so she put the "pedal to the metal". Her lust for liquid licked Grand Isle, where the Coast Guard Station there was not going to do anything but record the 160 mile an hour gusts. There was some small good news, however: She slowed down to 135, then only hit New Orleans at 110 mph. Betsy did not let go of her wicked ways until dissipated in Ohio. But her crying tantrum left way more water than those watersheds enjoyed.

Bad Moon Risin'

Disaster was inevitable, New Orleans is mostly below sea level. There was a 10 foot surge of water in that city, once so jubilant at Mardi Gras, that now overfilled Lake Pontchartrain and the deep water shipping Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. Not only was the Industrial Canal ruined, the levees around them failed. The flooding caused 90 percent of their electric to go black and 164,000 people to lose their homes, many of them surviving on rooftops; it took 10 days for the water to go back to normal levels. A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers mentions about New Orleans, LA and why they created the Hurricane Protection Program:

Betsy prompted Congress to authorize a ring of levees 16 feet high around the city — a project the Corps of Engineers is completing today. This level of protection was based on the science of storm prediction as it existed in the 1960s. The question remains, however, whether this level of protection would be sufficient to protect the city from a category 4 or 5 hurricane today — or even a category 3 storm that lingered over the city.
Nevertheless, these were safeguards for a similarly slow mover, but Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was a sluggish beast, hanging around to mush everything up.

The storm surge raised water almost as far east as Mobile, but not like the 15 foot over-wash on the Louisiana coastal islands. All up the Mississippi area, including Baton Rouge, the amount of tugs, barges, boats and ships lost by sinking or grounding or demolished was staggering. 11 of the wrecks blocked Old Man River 30 miles. One close call was the sinking of a barge near the University of Louisiana in 60 feet of water that was full of chlorine, that if the government had not found and salvaged to the surface could have killed tens of thousands if it had leaked.

Senator Russell Long, the son of the infamous (but beloved by others), Senator and Governor Huey Long had his nice home damaged, and his loved ones almost perished. So, when all was calm again, he called President Johnson, telling of his personal woes, and requested he come down to Louisiana and survey the devastation. Five hours later, Johnson did witness the suffering, reporters telling the story of how LBJ saw the victims desperately needing clean drinking water. The post wrote that he demanded that " red tape" interfere with relief and personally oversaw efforts for days.

Brother Can You Spare a Bil?

Because of the financial cost, $1.42 billion dollars, (most in Louisiana) she's been nicknamed, Billion Dollar Betsy, who actually caused almost 10 billion in today's dollars. Her name was the 17th (out of 76) to be retired since U.S. Weather Bureau started naming these maelstroms in 1953. They retire the names of especially nasty weather wenches. (They use Blanche, now; Before 1950 they had no names, and from 1950 to 1953 they were designated using the phonetic military styled alphabet --Able-Baker-Charlie). In 1979 the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the U.S. National Weather Service included men's names. In money lost, she was only less than Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and Andrew in 1992. Agnes only tied her in being the most flood inducing of these ravaging, not ravishing ladies (and a few not so gentle gentlemen.)

Blue Widow

Kind a happened this way,
Betsy pass through Louisiana today.
They tried to hide,
She killed so many folks,
That the rest were left,
couldn't be satisfied.
Hurricane Betsy,
Whoa, she fell down in Louisiana town,
Whoa, she left a lot a people wonderin'
Quite a few can't be found. 
Lightnin' Hopkins

In assessing the cost to human life, she was deadliest since 1965, killing 76 people (making her 18th after 1900 and until 2002), until Camille claimed 256 four years later. There were some absolutely murderous catastrophes early in the century that took lives of approximately 8 thousand, 10 thousand and 12 thousand respectively. Not to say there were not some others worse than these more modern typhoons, as rescue and engineering were not as sophisticated. Still, Katrina killed 4,081!

Blues in New Orleans

This very naughty girl was immortalized by Lightin' Hopkins in the song, "Hurricane Betsy", on his 1965 album, Lightnin Strikes. A book has been written by journalist Dan Baum, and then a musical titled Nine Lives by musician Paul Sanchez and songwriter Colman DeKay following a story genre reminiscent of Thornton Wilder's The Bridge over San Luis Rey; it looks at nine different (poor to rich) denizens from Hurricane Betsy through to 2005's Hurricane Katrina. It will be on Threadhead Records as a rock opera on a double CD format, first it featured Paul Sanchez with Shamarr Allen and Matt Perrine, wanting to expand it, they then they applied for and won the 50,000 Pepsi Refresh Project grant. Now they were able to enlist most all of the Big Easy's profuse talents including, Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, the Dixie Cups, Michelle Shocked, Harry Shearer, Anders Osborne, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Alex McMurray, Bernard Adams, Michael Cerveris, Craig Klein, John Boutté and Tanya Boutté; Arséne Delay, Jesse Moore, Vatican Lokey, Harry Shearer, Barbara Davis, Kevin Griffin, and any others of the Threadhead studio family.

Sources: -
/xtra/hurricane_timeline.htm 2009/ 05/ 30/ final-katrina-death-toll-at-4081/
The Mad Weeks of May: It's An Ill Wind

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