Hurricane Betsy and the Politics of Disaster in New Orleans's Lower Ninth Ward, 1965-1967

By Horowitz, Andy | The Journal of Southern History, November 2014 | Go to article overview

Hurricane Betsy and the Politics of Disaster in New Orleans's Lower Ninth Ward, 1965-1967


Horowitz, Andy, The Journal of Southern History


IN THE AFTERMATH OF HURRICANE BETSY, LUCILLE DUMINY MADE it to the American Red Cross office in New Orleans. When she finally reached the front of the line, she recalled, the woman at the desk asked her if she needed help. Duminy straightened her back and stared at the woman, incredulous: "'Could you repeat the question, please?"' So the agent asked again, "'Do you need assistance?'" Duminy believed the government had risked killing her and her family because they were black. She had barely slept in days. Her husband was in the hospital. She and her two children had nearly drowned. "'Miss, do you think I would waste my time coming over here to ask to get whatever you're going to give me?"' she asked. Duminy had been through hell and "was getting, what they say, pissed off." So she continued, "'Well, you know the Gulf of Mexico, ... do you see the water they have in there?"' '"Yes,"' the agent said. "'Well that's how much water we had,"' Duminy shouted. "'I could see just the tip, the roof of my house.' I said, 'That's all I could see. And you're asking me what I need? I need everything! I need a house and everything that goes in a house!' I said, T lost things that I can never replace."' (1)

Lucille Duminy was desperate, and she was not alone. When Hurricane Betsy came down on Louisiana "like a 125-mile-per-hour sledgehammer" on September 9, 1965, the Industrial Canal levee broke--or perhaps, as Duminy suspected, was bombed--allowing an ocean of water to surge through New Orleans's Lower Ninth Ward. While much of the city escaped any terrible damage, in the Lower Ninth over six thousand houses flooded. Almost all of those houses belonged to African Americans. (2) The water stood for more than a week, washing the smiles from photographs and disintegrating furniture, floors, and walls. The flood drowned at least sixty people in Louisiana, some in the attics of their own homes, houses that represented a hard-earned piece of the American Dream. Lucille Duminy and thousands of others did need help. This article is about the help that these New Orleanians did, and did not, receive in the course of what was called at the time "the most terrible natural disaster to hit our country." (3)

While Duminy and her neighbors in the Lower Ninth Ward experienced Betsy as a disaster, they never thought of it as "natural." They believed that their unequal suffering had been caused by government decisions; it followed, therefore, that the government owed them reparations. They lobbied for direct cash aid that would offer them the autonomy to recover as they believed best. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the promise of the Great Society had led the people of the Lower Ninth Ward to see themselves, tentatively but increasingly, as partners with the federal government. They tried to call on that partnership after Betsy.

When they failed to get the help they thought they were entitled to, African Americans in the Lower Ninth Ward came to believe that the government not only had caused the flood in the first place but also had broken a promise to help them recover from it. The welfare state, they learned, was like a levee: politicians could make cuts for some to give security to others. That lesson at once solidified their mistrust of the government and their reliance on it, and reminded them how important it was for neighbors to take care of each other. "The help I got, it wasn't enough," Duminy explained, "but we know how to survive." (4)

In contrast, the men who controlled Democratic politics, both in Louisiana and in Washington, D.C., understood the disaster to be, in President Lyndon B. Johnson's words, an "injury that has been done by nature"--an act of God that government had no role in causing and no obligation to fix. (5) Though some legislators initially advocated for grants, temporarily finding common cause with their devastated constituents, the logic of their disaster politics started from this different premise. …

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