American Disaster: In the Path of
a Dirty Storm

How the Residents of Plaquemines Parish Faced Hurricane Betsy

There are two kinds of storms, they say, in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana: there are clean storms, and there are dirty storms. Hurricane

Betsy was a dirty storm.

*

On an August day in 1965, the astronauts of Gemini V sped at fifteen thousand miles per hour, a hundred and fifty miles above the tangled deltas of southern Louisiana.

“It sure is a pretty day down over the Caribbean here,” said astronaut Gordon Cooper. Below the capsule, the sea sparkled, dappled with puffy cumulus clouds that, the astronauts noticed, gathered into a colossal gyre— a storm.

“That’s Betsy,” mission control informed them. The tropical depression— which drew in the moist summer air as a drain draws in water—appeared to stretch at least a hundred miles in each direction from its central eye. As they spun away on their ninety-minute orbit, the astronauts could see pulses of lightning illuminating the dark clouds from within.

A few days later, Gemini V hurtled down through the atmosphere, cutting a fiery path from Louisiana to a quiet patch in the Atlantic. Mission control cut the flight short when Betsy, now a tropical storm and rapidly intensifying, lurched north towards the planned splashdown site off the coast of Florida.

Directly below Gemini V as it went into radio blackout for reentry, Gary Duncan was getting ready for church, unaware of the historic spaceflight ending above his head. Big and athletic, with umber-colored skin and huge hands abraded to a leathery toughness from thousands of hours at sea, he wasn’t scared of hurricanes.

Gary lived with his family on a narrow plot of land in Boothville, Louisiana, that backed up to the river levee, a grassy berm of earth that kept the Mississippi River from overtopping its banks. Across the road, barely   a hundred yards from the house, was the back levee, which protected the habitable land from the wild marsh beyond.

You might hear the Duncans before you saw them. Boisterous and argumentative by nature, the children argued and ribbed one another about everything from scriptural interpretation to the proper use of filé in gumbo. Their parents, Lambert and Mazie, smiled and tried to tune out the cacophony. Both mother and father worked compulsively; they were makers of things. Lambert made extravagant home improvements by hand when he wasn’t taking a job on one of his two boats, and Mazie stayed up long after the others had gone to bed, chewing tobacco at the sewing machine as she made clothes for the family.

Of eight siblings, Gary was the baby, and the one thing they all could agree on was that he was spoiled—they knew it because they did the spoiling. Impish and restless, Gary was always sneaking out and causing trouble, but it was part of the pact with his siblings that they would protect him from whipping, even if it meant taking one themselves.

No one had expected Betsy to grow so large or move so fast.

He was only eighteen, but Gary had already spent much of his life on the water. He didn’t even remember the first time he had set foot on a boat. He had started trawling for shrimp with his brothers when he was twelve years old, so by the time he first took the helm of a boat, he knew every pass and bay and bayou in Plaquemines Parish, his home.

Plaquemines Parish—Louisiana counties are called parishes—is the end of the road. It sits at the extreme end of the Mississippi River, southeast of New Orleans, almost entirely surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico.

The river built Gary Duncan’s world, and the river defined it. Every granule of earth that made up Plaquemines (pronounced “PLACK-uh-mens” or “PLACK-mins”) had been carried by water from the Great Plains or the Appalachians or the Rockies and deposited in the Gulf, eventually building a delta in the shape of a bird’s  foot. From  its source, in Minnesota, to        its mouth, near Boothville, the Mississippi River carved a 2,300-mile path through the interior of the United States, forming the third-most-populous river basin in the world. The mouth of the Mississippi in Plaquemines   was the anchor of a vast expanse of marshland that stretched from the Everglades to Mexico.

The marsh had always drawn people to Plaquemines. Only 5 percent of the land in the parish lay between the levees and could be built on.* The rest was wetlands, fretted with bayous and great fields of grass that overflowed with life. There were even settlements out there, tiny clutches of wooden shacks built on stilts and accessible only by boat, where people subsisted on what they could shoot or trap or catch in a net.

But for most of the parish’s twenty-four thousand residents, life existed on the narrow ribbon of land between the levees. Everything in Plaquemines Parish was either “up the road” or “down the road.”† The road was State Highway 23, and it was the spine of the west bank, winding seventy miles south from New Orleans. Only one town, with the aspirational name of Venice, sat farther down the road than Boothville. From there, the thin ribbon of land on the west bank of the Mississippi dissipated into the Gulf. A few miles up the road was Buras, a boomtown fueled by thousands of high-paying jobs in the offshore oil industry.

Hard work was deep in the culture of Plaquemines. Almost as early as Gary Duncan could remember, he had been working. After school in the winter, he had clipped and packed oranges or worked in the bean fields and gardens. He ran cattle on the levee. And if he wasn’t working agriculture, he was on a boat. He was so young when he got his first job that his mother had to sign a release before he could be hired. All of the Duncan boys were raised to be independent, both personally and financially, and they taught one another the skills they needed.

There were just so many ways to make money in Plaquemines Parish. Work was freedom and security. Work provided for the family and allowed for leisure. Since the 1930s, the oil industry had dominated. There was     so much work available with oil companies that a lifelong Plaquemines resident remembers newcomers in suits walking down the shoulder of Highway 23 with briefcases, striding right into the oil-field offices, so sure were they that a job was waiting for them. Men worked in the fields in dozens of roles, each paying well enough to support a family. Many of them roughnecked on the offshore rigs that had sprung up along the continental shelf. The work was hard, and it was dangerous (“If you didn’t get burned up in a fire, you got blowed up by an explosion,” said one man who worked at Chevron), but it paid better than almost anything else a man could do with a high-school education.

But the oil fields offered jobs only to white workers, so black men did what everybody in Plaquemines had always done: they worked the land and they worked the water. There was gardening, tugboats, domestic work, seafood processing, tending and harvesting citrus, and the beginnings of     a charter fishing business. There was trapping, Plaquemines Parish’s oldest industry (at one time, Louisiana produced more furs than any other state). Most of all, in Boothville, there was trawling. Gary worked as a deckhand on his brothers’ shrimp boats and learned that, by getting up early and finding the right spots, a man could make almost as much money shrimping as in the oil fields, though the job was seasonal and came with no benefits.

The water provided a good living to black people in Boothville; there was no wealth, but they owned their own houses and cars and boats.

But just as it made the parish, the water also threatened it. Hurricanes and floods had killed thousands in Plaquemines over the years. Until the 1920s, the only real protection came from the landscape itself—the river built up a small natural levee, and the marshland absorbed the force of incoming storm surge. When those barriers were overcome, whole communities had been wiped out in a matter of hours.

But as Hurricane Betsy made its way north from the Caribbean and began to threaten the Gulf, few in Plaquemines Parish were really worried. Since 1928, when the Army Corps of Engineers had built the Mississippi levee system— the world’s largest—no storm had breached those massive defenses.

But no one had expected Betsy to grow so large or move so fast.

*

A hurricane is essentially a jet engine. It sucks in air and, using the combustive fuel of warm ocean water, energizes that air with heat and moisture, sending it spinning into the sky as soaring, puffy clouds. But      as the clouds tower higher and the pressure beneath the uplifted air gets lower, the center of the system collapses, hurtling back to the surface of the ocean, where it becomes yet more charged with heat and moisture and is catapulted aloft again to repeat the cycle. As the system grows, it rotates and pulls in still more air to feed itself.

Betsy paused in the Atlantic, gathering fuel from the warm sea, spinning faster and growing. When it lurched towards Florida, its eye was sixty miles across, the largest ever photographed. Miami residents had less than twenty-four hours to evacuate. Some were still stuck in traffic when the storm surge trapped them in their cars.

In Plaquemines, the first sign of danger came when three thousand roughnecks were brought in from the offshore oil rigs. Perhaps spooked by the reports of Betsy’s assault on Florida, the oil companies swiftly sent their people to land. Two days later, the evacuation order came.

Evacuating Plaquemines was uniquely challenging: the parish was a giant bottleneck, and even a well-organized exodus would leave thousands of residents waiting in line on the highway, where they were vulnerable.

But no one worried too much. For  people in Plaquemines, leaving was  a hassle and an expense, but they had weathered hurricanes before. Finding shelter was a part of life, a familiar inconvenience.

*

Boothville awoke at five in the morning on September 9 as patrol cars rolled slowly down the highway, blaring the evacuation order from loudspeakers. A light rain was soaking into the soil—Betsy’s eye was still hundreds of miles away, but ribbons of rain clouds lashed away at the storm’s fringe.

The Duncans began packing at once, except for Gary and two of his brothers, Mancil and Calvin, who said they would stay behind to close up the house. Then they planned to head to the Venice Marina to ride out the storm. It sounded like fun. They would take Lambert’s dog and pick up some wine and a few friends, and they could enjoy the impromptu day off from the safest place: on the water. Calvin was captain of a big two-engine tugboat, the Sea Master, which would bob right over the storm surge, they reasoned.

Their mother was not pleased. The family was going up to New Orleans, and she did not like the idea of leaving three of her four sons in harm’s way. But they had ridden out storms before, and anyway she knew they were past the age when a mother’s insistence had power, so she climbed into the car and joined the line of sleepy families making their way up Highway 23 in the dark.

Gary knew the sounds of a hurricane, but this howling was like nothing he had heard before.

Gary piled his brothers, two friends, and the dog into his car and drove down to the marina, passing over The Jump, as locals called the last of the huge Army Corps of Engineers levees. Beyond The Jump, the land was precarious, though a network of breakwaters offered some protection. Gary’s convoy was joined at the dock by many others, some intent on staying with their boats, some just sick of waiting in line on the highway. A couple of sheriff deputies were at The Jump, pleading with residents to turn around and go up the road to safety. They were ignored.

The Duncan boys loaded food and booze onto the Sea Master and, for good measure, tied their father’s boats and Calvin’s skiff to the big tug. There were already two or three hundred people on boats spread out in  the harbor. Some families without other accommodation caught rides to the marina and boarded a steel-hulled sand dredge that, while clammy and uncomfortable, was like a floating bomb shelter.

Gary parked his car on a high spot on the levee and returned to the little flotilla. In the tight cabin, he cracked open a beer and waited. Darkness fell, and the rumble of rain on the cockpit roof grew until it sounded like a continuous roll of thunder. Above that low, wet sound came another: a high whistling that was rounded out by a low tone you could feel in your chest, like the deep bass notes of an organ.

Gary knew the sounds of a hurricane, but this howling was like nothing he had heard before. A rhythmic knocking sound reverberated through the cabin, and Gary jumped up. He exchanged a glance with his brothers, and he knew they all worried about the same thing: that a steel barge had come free and would smash the smaller boats to pieces.

Gary looked out the window and saw Calvin’s skiff crashing against one of Lambert’s tugs, rubbing off the paint and sending little slivers of wood flying. He started praying that the skiff would sink.

He could see the water level rising. First, the marshland dropped out of sight, then the pastures began to disappear, and then the bushes and shrubs, until only trees were visible. Muddy water gushed through a channel up the road from them, roiling back into the marina in a visible current. The Sea Master rose with all the boats, but the storm was not yet halfway over, and already the Gulf was spilling in.

As the water covered everything around them, the brothers’ prayers were answered, and Calvin’s skiff sank before it could beat a hole in the hull of their father’s boat. They wished, though, that they had had the presence of mind to bring Gary’s portable radio with them. Without it, they had no way of knowing how others were faring or how long the storm might last. But it was back in his car, a hundred yards or more away, an impossible distance to travel in these fatal conditions.

Late at night, Gary felt the wind and rain diminish. Betsy’s eye had passed over Venice, he knew, and it occurred to him that he had a window of time to run and get his radio. He raced from the cabin and into the eerie silence. Storm surge had submerged all of the land except for a skinny band of levee, and Gary ran out along it towards his car. It was dark, but he knew the marina well, almost by feel, and he wasted no time—the calm of the eye would not last for long.

He saw with relief that the car was safe and dry where he had left it. He grabbed the radio and set out again for the Sea Master, threading his way back over the levee in the darkness.

All at once, Gary heard an unearthly, apocalyptic noise. The force of the wind hit him like a solid object, knocking him off his feet and back towards the surging water. With a blow that emptied his lungs, he was flung against something massive and pinned there. Pain shot up from his back, and he felt behind him the featureless hull of a barge. Trapped by the wind, he could barely open his eyes against the droplets of rain that stung like hailstones and battered his face and chest. He dropped low and painstakingly crawled back towards his brothers.

On either side of him was a hellscape. Lumber and boat parts bobbed among loose skiffs, and barges skidded up and over the buildings. Cows windmilled their legs in a vain attempt to right themselves before they drowned.

Somehow Gary had made it back to the Sea Master, and somehow he had managed to hold on to the radio. For several long hours, the sound of wind and water filled the brothers’ skulls until, at last, the storm had passed.

In the weak light, all they could see in every direction was water and trash: trash in the canals and in the bayous, trash up in the trees and on the roof of the marina.

The Duncans waited until the first soft light began to glow in the east, and then they set out along the levee for Gary’s car. It had stayed mercifully dry, and they rolled along slowly, weaving between barges and piles of debris that had washed up in the night. They figured that once they reached The Jump, the driving would get easier. Experiencing some storm surge was an expected, even routine part of riding out a hurricane in Venice Marina, and one needed only go up the road as far as the massive river levees to reach safety. When they came around the final turn, though, the Duncan brothers stopped.

In the weak light, all they could see in every direction was water and trash: trash in the canals and in the bayous, trash up in the trees and on the roof of the marina. Oil drums, shotguns, pieces of boats, boards, roofing, trailers, people’s homes and possessions—all mixed in with organic detritus: mud, branches, grass, carcasses. A tugboat, intact, rested atop the firehouse as if deliberately placed there by a giant. Dead cattle carved slow circles in the water.  Only the very top of the levee protruded above the water, and  it was covered with boats and clusters of livestock that snorted and paced nervously among the thronging fire ants and snakes. The snakes—they had never seen so many snakes.

The Duncans stared for a moment at the seemingly endless body of water that had appeared overnight on top of their homes, and then they turned around and made their way back to the Sea Master. There was nowhere  else to go.

Later in the day, Gary, Calvin, and Mancil commandeered a small skiff to motor up the road towards home. The water was most of the way up the walls, so Gary had to swim through a broken window to get inside. There was nothing to be done with the floating debris and furniture, but he swam over to the front door and reached up over the casing. With some relief,   he felt his guns there—a shotgun and a .22 rifle—where he kept them. He took them down and swam carefully back to the skiff.

Calvin went to his house, which had shifted off its blocks and tilted to one side. The building was a mess, but he was overjoyed to find his beloved chihuahua floating on a sofa in the living room. There was nothing left to do there, and none of the brothers dared think too much about the destruction of their houses as they returned to Venice.

__________________________________

deep delta justice

From Deep Delta Justice by Matthew Van Meter. Used with the permission of Little, Brown and Company. Copyright © 2020 by Matthew Van Meter.

Matthew Van Meter
Matthew Van Meter
Matthew Van Meter works with people whose voices have been ignored or silenced, both as a journalist and as the Assistant Director of Shakespeare in Prison. His reporting on criminal justice has appeared in The Atlantic and The New Republic, and he is currently editing the first critical edition of Shakespeare written entirely by incarcerated people. Raised Quaker on the East Coast, he now lives in Detroit.





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