Hurricane Betsy – September 9, 1965

Hurricane Betsy was, for its time, the costliest and deadliest hurricane in U.S. history.

Hurricane Betsy was a powerful hurricane of the 1965 Atlantic hurricane season, causing enormous damage in the Bahamas, Florida, and Louisiana. While it made its first landfall at Key Largo in Florida, Betsy did its greatest damage after the second landfall on September 9 near the mouth of the Mississippi River, causing significant flooding of the waters of Lake Pontchartrain into New Orleans. Betsy was, for its time, the costliest and deadliest hurricane in the history of the United States and, as the first hurricane with damages over a billion dollars, earning it the nickname “Billion- Dollar Betsy.” It killed seventy-six people in Louisiana.

It had formed east of the Windward Islands, and moved north through the island chain as a tropical storm. On September 7, Hurricane Betsy continued moving toward the very south of Florida. It passed over Key Largo at the eastern end of the Florida Keys, and then continued west along the Keys, as a category 3 hurricane.

Hurricane-force winds were experienced in the Miami area for roughly twelve hours. At its landfall on Key Largo, Betsy had an exceptionally large eye, forty miles in diameter. After crossing Florida Bay and entering the Gulf of Mexico, it strengthened into a category 4 storm with winds up to 155 mph, only one mile per hour short of category 5 status.

It continued northwestward and, on the evening of September 9, made its second landfall at Grand Isle, Louisiana, just west of the mouth of the Mississippi River, where it destroyed almost every building. At this time, it was a strong category 3 storm, causing the Mississippi at New Orleans to rise by ten feet. It slammed into New Orleans with wind speeds of 110 mph. Power failures were reported in the city.

The Baton Rouge weather bureau, operating under emergency power, warned residents to get extra food that would not have to be cooked, or with little preparation. They also warned residents to store a water supply, have flashlights or other emergency light sources, and keep them at the ready. In addition, residents were told to fill the gasoline tanks of their cars, and check to make sure their battery powered radios had full charged batteries in them, and to secure any small boats immediately.

The storm surge continued into Lake Pontchartrain, just north of New Orleans, and the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a deep-water shipping channel to the east and south. Levees for the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet along Florida Avenue in the Lower Ninth Ward and on both sides of the Industrial Canal were overtopped and failed. Water reached the eaves of houses in some places and over some one story roofs in the Lower Ninth Ward. Some residents drowned in their attics trying to escape the rising waters.

It was ten days or more before the water level in New Orleans went down enough for people to return to their homes. It took even longer than that to restore their flooded houses to a livable condition. Those who did not have family or friends with dry homes had to sleep in the shelters at night and forage for supplies during the day, while waiting for the federal government to provide emergency relief in the form of trailers. In all, 164,000 homes were flooded at the second landfall.

As had happened so many times before in New Orleans, the levees proved to be inadequate even for a category 3 storm. The Army Corps of Engineers’ Hurricane Protection Program came into existence as a result of Betsy. The Corps built new levees for New Orleans that were both taller and made of stronger material, designed specifically to resist a fast-moving category 3 hurricane like Betsy.

The resulting levee improvements failed once again when Hurricane Katrina, a large and slow-moving category 3 hurricane, made a hit close to New Orleans on August 29, 2005. Finally, because of the amount of damage it had caused, the name Betsy was retired from the recurring list of names for Atlantic hurricanes and replaced by Blanche.

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