Remembering “Wet Betsy”

Newsrooms in South Florida mobilize for hurricanes in much the same way they do for elections but with an important difference. Beats are assigned to everyone on the staff, and each person has responsibility for at least one specific area of coverage. In my years at The Miami Herald and Fort Lauderdale News, I experienced several major storms, but the one that stands out is the one I missed covering.

Betsy, our infant daughter Katie, and I had moved from Tampa to Miramar in south Broward County in April 1965 so I could report to my new job on the Fort Lauderdale News. Barely four months later, I was not working in the newsroom but lying in a hospital with a urinary problem that required surgery, just as a major hurricane took aim at South Florida.

“Wet Betsy” as headline writers dubbed this storm, saturated the area with so much water that The Miami Herald couldn’t deliver its papers for a day. Flooding stranded its trucks in an underground garage. The Fort Lauderdale News ran off extra copies and trucked them into Miami for information-starved residents.

Betsy, my bride, locked up our rented house and took refuge, baby and all, in the home of college friends to ride out the storm.

South Florida residents were accustomed to hurricanes in those days and knew how to cope. There were always some fools, though, who booked oceanfront rooms in Miami Beach hotels to party as they watched the storm-tossed ocean and drank. Reporters busily headed to their various assigned coverage venues — emergency rooms, shelters, weather forecasting centers, grocery stores, police headquarters, beachfront hotels, home improvement stores, electric power utilities offices, nursing homes.

Some of this work took a toll on us. I recall one fellow reporter watching in horror as sand-filled ocean waves poured into the transmission on his new car that he had driven too close to the action.

Hurricane Betsy, a category 4 storm with winds reaching 155 miles per hour, hung around for two weeks and killed 81 people. Damage was estimated at $1.43 billion. A bad storm. But others have been much worse: Camille, which blasted the Gulf coast in 1969; Andrew in 1992, which devastated South Florida; and of course, Katrina in 2005, blamed for 1,245 deaths.

Betsy (the one I married, not the storm) and I have just cancelled a long-anticipated four-day trip to Kill Devil Hills on North Carolina’s Outer Banks that would have begun today. A dangerous hurricane called Florence is taking aim on the east coast and is predicted to come ashore in North Carolina by Wednesday or Thursday. This storm looks like a mean one, and we’re not willing to risk it. I loved my life in journalism, but I’m glad I won’t be covering this hurricane.



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