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Hurricane Stories

Living in New Orleans is a unique experience for many reasons. Your first thought after that statement is great food or great music but one other experience to add to the list for those of us who live here is the hurricane experience. If you become a permanent resident of the Gulf Coast you will come to terms with this force of nature. The smaller storms dump rain by the buckets and have winds, which snap the small limbs from trees. The larger ones have names and create landmark events for children to mark their life memories with for later years.

Hurricane imageThe question most asked when big storm is headed your way is, "Should I stay or should I go?" It's a hard question to answer. From experience you learn to measure these storms from a distance. Strength and direction are the key elements in a decision and sometimes staying put makes more sense than wandering into the unknown. Besides, it adds to the drama.

When I was still measuring years in single digits the measuring stick for storms was Audrey. She was a killer who hit southwest Louisiana south of Lake Charles near the Texas boarder. The storm surge killed many and destroyed much in the low-lying area on the west side of the Atchafalaya Basin. So in 1965 when Betsy was headed for town we got our water, radio batteries and candles and were very smug in our decision to ride it out. Of course there were no weather satellites or up-to-the-second radar reports to tell us what we were in for. Sometime after midnight my mother woke me up and said, "Were getting out of here." We got dressed and packed to leave. We opened the door to walk to the car and were stopped in our tracks as we watched sections of roofing tin and lumber fly by. She changed our mind and we went back in for the duration. There was an eerie respite as the eye of the storm passed over and we went outside to observe the calm before the backside of the storm commenced. In the morning the storm was gone but the damage was just coming into focus. We lived in a double across the street from the old Jefferson Downs. From the yard we could see there was stuff all over the parking lot. Most of it looked like it belonged to the barns or grandstand of the track. The roof of the clubhouse building had been peeled back and all of the contents had been emptied into the surrounding lot and beyond. The offices at the track were above the grandstand and were accessible by catwalk. The storm had pulled much of the roof from the grandstand as well and the catwalk was strewn with metal and debris. We had to get in the office to retrieve the insurance binder in order to begin to make a claim for storm damage. Sunshine greeted us through the open hole over the desk where the binder was soaking in a pool of water. The mission was accomplished and we returned home to watch the news reports of damage and flooding from the surrounding area. It was a week before the city began to return to a semblance of normalcy.

By 1969 when Camille was bearing down on us forecasting where the storms were headed had become better and there were strength ratings available. Betsy had been deemed a strong Category 3 storm, almost Category 4. The bad news was Camille was a strong 4, almost 5, and among the strongest storms to ever enter the Gulf. It was on the "killer scenario" track for New Orleans. It is said if a Category 3 or larger storm ever followed the path up the mouth of the Mississippi River, the storm surge would put the whole city under 20 feet of water. Nash Roberts is a legend in New Orleans. If you're 20-something, you've probably never heard of him. He predicted weather for the D-Day invasion of WWII and in my memory the landfall of Hurricane Betsy and Camille. His best work was a call for Camille to take a slight hook right at the mouth of the Mississippi River and hit the coast of Bay St. Louis and Biloxi, Miss. New Orleans was spared. The two small cities east of us were almost wiped away.

The new Jefferson Downs was not immune to hurricane damage. On more than one occasion, sections of the roof were torn away by storms. Even so, the track became a storm shelter of sorts for our employees. Every time a hurricane would threaten the city the employees who lived near the track would gather their families and camp out on our third floor level of the clubhouse outside the general office area. Sort of a New Orleans horse racing version of a hurricane tailgate party. One summer the racing secretary, Warren Groce, asked for a week off for a special trip to Disney World with his grandchildren. A hurricane formed in the Gulf and threatened the upper coast of Florida. The family decided they would retreat to Biloxi. The storm made an immediate turn to the west and headed straight for Biloxi. After repacking they came right home only to find the storm had changed paths again and was headed for New Orleans. They finally sought sanctuary on the third floor of Jefferson Downs.

The new Fair Grounds had a minor test with Hurricane Georges. A section of the clubhouse roof was peeled back in the storm but the new building held steady. In fact it became the temporary lodging for the Diliberto clan. Buddy asked the favor of using our office areas for shelter from the storm for his family and his pooch. None of the downtown hotels would take the dog as a guest. Security was notified of the family and dog arrangements. Sometime after midnight we got a call at the house to inquire how many people and how many dogs to let in? "Well, let's see ... Buddy has one dog and I guess about six people," I replied. After a momentary pause on the line the count was reported at near 20 people and at least a half a dozen dogs of all shapes and sizes. They all remained comfortable and left the next morning safe and sound. This storm had the same original path as Camille but little of the punch, and as had been the case with Camille, made the hook to the right before coming on land. A new staff member from a northern state had settled in to her routine that summer oblivious to the peril of life on the Gulf Coast. She asked advice about the storm as it was forecast to strike the city. Of course her relatives demanded she evacuate even though she was told all would be well. The pressure got the best of her and she went to Meridian, Miss. Of course the storm followed her up the highway from the coast and then to another city east and north of Meridian. She shall remain nameless in this writing since I'm sure she is glowing red as she reads this.

The small storms like Isidore test us but they become more of an exercise in being prepared for the "big one." The kids play in the wind and water enjoying the days out of school as northern kids enjoy snow days. The adults keep the score of how many inches or rain fell where and what the track of the storm is. When the next one comes you can weigh the variables and decide if you need to leave after boarding up and picking up and if so what direction to go ... or just stay and ride it out.