What's a Raconteur?

rac·on·teur
/ˌräˌkänˈtər/

A person who tells anecdotes in a skillful and amusing way; a storyteller; a narrator

Driving a Bus Through Hurricane Betsy

Driving a Bus Through Hurricane Betsy

Towards the end of our interview time, we ask a series of reflective questions, such asWhat is a time you did something spontaneous? What were some of the most frightening moments of your life? What is an example of a time you surprised yourself?

 

When asked those questions, one storyteller had a REMARKABLE story to tell. A story about a time he did something spontaneous and frightening and surprised himself. A time that even 50 years later, he cannot seem to forget. 

 

When he told the story in painstaking detail, our writer took rapid notes. We re-listened to the audio of the interview many times until we had his voice captured just right. Then, we documented this remarkable story, which we integrated into his greater life story narrative.


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DRIVING A BUS IN HURRICANE BETSY: 

AN EXCERPT FROM THE MEMOIR OF KEN S. 


In 1965, when I was nineteen years old, I got a new job as a bus driver who took commuting students from Houma to Nicholls State University in Thibodeaux. After only two or three trips to and from campus, the locals predicted a hurricane. Although my family had lived through countless storms, Mama and Daddy evacuated for the first time to my older sister’s house in Houma. The afternoon the storm was to hit, I parked the bus in the yard and came in the house. Then the bright day outside suddenly warped into darkness. Since our home was in Dulac on the southern tip of Bayou Grand Caillou and right beside the Gulf, I figured I should get to higher ground in the northern part of the parish

Before I left, the phone rang. My boss, Mr. Marmillian, said all the other bus drivers in Grand Caillou and surrounding communities weren’t answering their phones. He desperately needed someone to evacuate the locals and bring them to Houma Jr. High School for shelter. 


With little experience driving the big bus, I began an eventful night. I headed down the road that had recently been paved. Both shoulders were covered in clamshells. The rain started and the people ran out of their houses to the bus. On the other side of the bayou was another road speckled with sparse houses, followed by a ship channel that easily flooded. I knew the other side of the bayou would be underwater shortly. 


By the time I got to the end of the road, the bus was filled with thirty or forty people and the floodwater still gathered in the banks of the bayou. By the time I turned around, the water was covering the road. I drove by memory and by feeling the smooth, paved road beneath me. Whenever I felt clamshells, that meant I was on the shoulder and about to drive into the bayou. I’d straighten my wheel and persevere, picking up people along the way. I drove back past the first swinging bridge in the main part of Dulac. Since this road would take us to Houma, I was thankful we wouldn’t have to cross a dangerous bridge in this weather. By now, I had about seventy people aboard. 


After traveling for about a mile past the bridge, I saw flashing lights ahead and a police car blocking the road. The officer told me to go retrieve a lady with three sick children stranded on the other side of the bayou—the side that would surely be underwater soon. I turned the bus around, crossed the first swing bridge in the main part of Dulac, and drove about a mile until I found the woman’s house. I went out in the storm and was blown off the wooden porch twice. Finally, we continued with the woman and her children safely aboard. 


I turned the bus back toward the direction of the swing bridge, which I found swung open in the middle of the bayou. Trying to stay calm, I headed north, planning to cross to the other side of the bayou at the next swing bridge located a couple miles away. Those couple of miles took about half an hour to traverse. When I found the bridge locked in an open position in the bayou and inaccessible, I kept driving, hoping the next and last swing bridge was working. I drove three more miles by feeling the pavement or clamshells under the tires. When I reached the final bridge, I found it locked open too. The bridge keepers likely locked them so that boats could travel up the bayou to safety. 


After a few men got out and guided me to turn around, I drove straight back to the original bridge we’d crossed about two hours earlier, knowing it was our only hope to cross before the water rose over the bus. When I found it accessible and started to cross, strong wind swung the bridge open, leaving us stranded and looking down the bayou at the rushing water while I stood on the brake. Although I was glad the bridge was higher up than the low strip of marshland on the other side of the bayou, I acknowledged the danger of our predicament. We had to get off the bridge before wind tipped us over. A few terrifying minutes later, I drove off, only breathing easy once both sets of tires rolled on land. 


I began driving the long, twenty-mile stretch to Houma, hearing the tires and wind blowing. Once we drove past the third bridge and near Ashland Sugar Plantation, I saw a station wagon on the side of the road. The priest from Dulac, Father Fennigan, was stranded with about a dozen evacuees. He said we couldn’t continue because of a sparking, downed power line and suggested we instead bunker down at the chapel on the plantation, which he was trying to break into. I tried to convince him to join us on the bus, but gave in and tried to help him get into the chapel built up on concrete pillars. Just as he climbed on my shoulders to enter the chapel’s window, a gust of wind blew the building off its blocks, barely missing us. With no other option, Father Fennigan and those with him joined us on the bus. 


I drove over the sparking power line that whipped in the wind. I continued to drive at about 5 mph, sensing the road beneath me and scarcely hearing the loud wind over the praying people inside the bus. Strong winds nearly blew the bus over, but we were saved by the weight of so many people inside. Every mile I drove brought relief, knowing I was closer to reaching higher ground. After about eight hours total, we made it to the shelter. 


That night, the school’s gymnasium was filled wall to wall with evacuees. The gymnasium buckled in the wind, but withstood Hurricane Betsy’s winds that reached 155 mph at the time Father Fennigan and I were out by the chapel. The homes on the side of the bayou where the woman and her children lived were underwater to their roofs or destroyed completely. The brand-new bus looked like a dinted tin can. After the eye of the hurricane passed over Houma, I went out and marveled at the calm night. 


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