While most in St. Bernard Parish vividly remember Hurricane Katrina, and older generations remember Hurricane Betsy, there was another storm which caused a lot of consternation, but in the end, only headaches.
Hurricane Elena formed n the Carribbean Sea the Wednesday before Labor Day, and the next day, it appeared on a due northerly coast toward the Louisiana coast, specifically Grand Isle and New Orleans.
I wasn’t quite nine years old, and I was panicked. I had heard all the horror stories about hurricanes and read about the anatomy of a hurricane enough in the World Book encylopedia to know it would be holy terror if Elena came our way.
I was in fourth grade at St. Robert Bellarmine, and school was called off Friday, August 30. Most kids were looking forward to an unplanned four-day weekend. i was more concerned with saving my life.
My parents didn’t believe the hype, and although I pleaded with them to evacuate, they wouldn’t.
The next afternoon, it turned out I was the panciky one. The storm was starting to turn to the northeast, away from Louisiana and towards Florida. We proceeded as normal the rest of Friday and Saturday as normal, and then that Sunday, went to a gathering of my mother’s family at her brother’s house in Harvey, across the Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans.
Meanwhile, Elena began to veer so far east it looked like it would miss the Florida panhandle and instead make landfall at Cedar Key, 45 miles west of Gainesville, the home to the University of Florida.
While we were at my uncle’s house, I saw a bulletin from WVUE, which was then the ABC affiliate in New Orleans. The Louisiana coast was placed under a hurricane warning because the storm was now making a sharp turn back towards the west.
My parents and brother didn’t worry, but I began to. We went back to Arabi and went to bed like it was any old night.
At 1:30 a.m., any old night disintegrated. Deputies from the St. Bernard Sheriff’s Office began announcing the parish was under a mandatory evacuation order issued by Sheriff Jack Stephens. Even though western St. Bernard Parish was protected by floodwalls (levees in the New Orleans vernacular) which had been erected following Betsy, they weren’t taking any chances.
We hurriedly packed a few things and drove to the Ramada hi-rise hotel at the corner of Claiborne Avenue and Canal Street. My parents figured it would be safe to evacuate vertically, but they did not realize going up would only intensify the effects of the wind, which is why New Orleans stopped vertical evacuation following Hurricane Georges in 1998.
It turned out to be another close call. The storm turned north at the Mississippi coast and made landfall in Jackson County near Pascagoula, closer to Alabama than Louisiana. There was some rain, but nothing to scare the locals, who were used to heavier downpours in summer thunderstorms.
We wouldn’t have to evacuate for another storm until Andrew in 1992, and in that one, my dad foolishly suggested we stay in a three-story office building in New Orleans East where Air Products and Chemicals had corporate offices. Great idea. Thank God Andrew turned west towards Morgan City, or I guarantee I would not have lived to see Georges, Ivan, Dennis or Katrina, or the ones which made landfall after I moved to Kansas.
Hurricanes may require mass evacuation, but at least there is a lot of lead time. Greensburg had only 10 minutes to get to their storm shelters before the EF-5 tornado wiped out most of the Kiowa County town on May 4, 2007.
Mother Nature was, is and always will be undefeated. We can only learn to live with her frivolities.