Tuesday, September 11, 2007


There are few times in my life that I can pinpoint exactly what I was doing on a specific day/night in history, but September 9, 1969 is one of the times I can.

Hurricane Betsy came ashore near Grand Isle, Louisiana that evening as a 40-mile wide Category 3 hurricane packing 135 MPH winds. The storm was a strange one, in that it made two complete loops, reversing itself, before turning around from aiming at the North Carolina cost. Betsy swept back through the Florida Keys, strengthening to a Category 4 when it reached the Gulf, just 1 MPH short of being a Category 5, and then making landfall near the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Betsy was dubbed “Billion Dollar Betsy” for causing $1.42 billion in damages in 1965 dollars! Eight oil platforms were destroyed and 76 people died as a direct result of the storm.

Forty-two years ago, and a little more than 90 miles away, Patrolman Mushy was trying desperately to find a power line that had been reported down somewhere on the street that separated Keesler Air Base from the flight line.

“Unit Four, you havin’ any luck?” the Desk Sergeant asked.

The Ford Econoline eased along the street, its bed loaded with sand to keep it firmly on its tires. The wind howled from the Gulf side of the base and making the rain come in quick sheets across the street in front of me. The wipers did little good and the inside of the windows were fogging up from the humidity. I wiped constantly at the windshield, trying to keep a porthole size spot clear so I could see.

“Nothin’ yet, Keesler!” I yelled into the microphone trying to be heard over the sound of the wind and rain pelting the metal cab of the truck.

Every 5 minutes the Desk Sergeant would specifically ask me this question. Between times he took reports of trees down, flooding, or other power lines down somewhere on the base.

I inched along, feeling the truck rock back and forth from the 75 to 90 MHP gust, trying to see through the little hole in the windshield. The base was in complete darkness, except for my headlights and the frequent flashes of lightning.

I thought about my dad during that anxious time, because, as you may remember, he was terribly afraid of storms, and often got us all out of bed and drove around in the car until the storms passed. I wondered how he would like it if he were riding with me.

“How’bout it Unit Four?”

“Negative, I have not found any power…”

Just then, there was a loud crack, and a pop, and the night lit up behind my truck. I looked into the rear view mirror and saw another bright blue flash and a shower of sparks!

“Uh…I think I found it Keesler, it’s at the intersection of…” My voice shook and my knees seemed strangely weak. I ran over the downed power line, and it had not reared its dangerous head until after I passed over it!

“Ten-four Unit four, we’ll direct the power boys over there. Stick around and keep traffic away from that area.”

“Traffic?” I thought. I was the only fool out on a night like this!

The U.S. 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. However, the levee improvements failed when Hurricane Katrina, a large and slow-moving Category 3 hurricane made a near direct hit on New Orleans on 2005.

For us, the wind died down shortly after midnight and the base began the process of cleaning up the mess Betsy left. We all worked a twelve-hour shift that evening, and through the morning of the 10th, and by the time I got in the rack, Boyce was there with breakfast from the “back gate” café. It had survived, as did most of the area around Biloxi, so it was business as usual under the beautiful blue skies of the Gulf Coast.

Boyce and I slept like babies!


~Fathairybastard~ said...

I have very few memories of Bermuda, where I was born in late 1960. One is of driving to Sunday school, riding in the back seat of an old car. A kid fell don in the floor on a bolt sticking up from the floor of a car as we were standing up in the back seat. He bled all over the place and screamed his head off. Another is of a hurricane that swept through as my mom and I took refuge in the basement of our little house up from the beach. Dad was somewhere else, and at the age of 3, I knew it was my job to say something. I told my mom everything would be ok. That's it. Short and sweet.

You weave cool pictures with words man.

Lin said...

Driving around in an Econoline in a hurricane? Damn, I'd almost rather be out in the Santa Maria. Nah, I'd be long gone to ground in a bunker somewhere. God luv ya!

David Sullivan said...

Biloxi is still a mess as of this past May. I love your stories about Kessler, you really capture the essence of the area.

Dixiechick said...

I was only 4 years old so I don't remember.. ;-)


Jose said...

Being a West Coast guy I have no idea what a hurricane feels/looks like and I think I want to keep it that way. Now earthqaukes is a different story.

~Fathairybastard~ said...

Oh, and cool tune too.

pat houseworth said...

Missed "Betsey" brother...was riding the tarmac at Nha Trang(or doing some other boring arse LE job)...but I was around for 9/11/07...drop by and see my short essay on that day.


pat houseworth said...

or maybe I should say I was around for 9/11/01...and 9/11/85..stop first Hurricane though was 1960- Venice, Florida, Hurricane "Donna"...the west coast of Florida was spared any more major storms for 40+ years....then the 21st century has changed that.


Michele said...

I remember Betsy well!! We lived in Venice, Louisiana (right at the mouth of the Mississippi river). We had evacuated and when my father went back, everything we left behind was under water or had been blown away. It's something that you really never forget or get over,,,

Shrink Wrapped Scream said...

Blimey, bad enough having to keep the bad boys in line, never mind wrestling Betsy too. You've sure lived a charmed life, my friend, guess someone was out there keeping an eye out for you on that day!

Becky said...

THat was a close call. Thankfully, you weren't hurt. I've only been through one hurricane in Hawaii and fortunately, it could have been a lot worse (or, it was for Kauai).

BRUNO said...

You were damned lucky, indeed, not to come in contact with that downed line, even if you were inside the vehicle! Don't know exactly why, but for some reason, rubber tires still will ground you, especially when wet!

I THOUGHT that looked like an old Ford, in the earlier pics! I knew it was either that, or a Dodge...

phlegmfatale said...

It's funny how something with so cute a name as "Betsy" could be so expensive and damaging! Much like my own hurricane that hit Houston a couple years back...

Sarge Charlie said...

My first experience of a storm was on Okinawa in 1970, we were in govt quarters and water blew under the door and around the windows, the damn storm went down one side of the island and turned and went up the other side, we were in condition one for 18 hours.

I have seen several in florida in the past few years.

Suldog said...

I've actually been printing out your recent stuff and taking my time, savoring it. I'm enjoying this whole series an awful lot, Mushy. Keep 'em coming!

Mushy said...

See...we've all lived similar things...there is no difference in us at all.

Sul - you really keep my head too large for my hat! Thanks.