United States Department of Agriculture
Office of Civil Defense
Hurricanes, perhaps more than any other natural disaster, have the ability to simulate the effects of an atomic bomb. When the massive storms sweep ashore, they destroy utilities, flatten cities, and displace populations for lengthy periods of time. Aware of these similarities, civil defense officials in the United States paid close attention to public reactions before, during, and after particularly devastating hurricanes. In the wake of the destruction, they analyzed the effectiveness of emergency services, shelters, communications, and command centers, all of which would also be used during an enemy nuclear attack. On several occasions, their analysis was combined with footage captured during storms to create films which highlighted the value of civil defense resources. This was the case when the Department of Agriculture teamed with the Office of Civil Defense to tell the story of Hurricane Betsy, which forcefully struck the Gulf Coast in September of 1965. One year later, the two agencies released A Hurricane Called Betsy, which examines the role civil defense played in protection and recovery efforts.
A Hurricane Called Betsy follows its namesake storm from formation off the African coast to its landfall in Louisiana. Focusing on the city of New Orleans, the personal survival tales of several of its citizens are featured including an expecting mother, a man debilitated by polio, and the local civil defense director. "Betsy roars down on her third swinging town, closing Bourbon Street tighter than a ten o'clock curfew!" As Betsy careened through Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana, she left 81 dead and nearly 1.5 billion dollars in damage. The film wraps up by documenting the recovery of many flooded neighborhoods, as well as a presidential visit from Lyndon Johnson to the most stricken areas. With a running time of thirty minutes, however, A Hurricane Called Betsy was deemed too long to screen for the passing crowds at traveling civil defense exhibits. To remedy this, thrifty editors within the Office of Civil Defense trimmed it down to twelve minutes and released the new production under the title The Five Days of Betsy. While the shorter version still presents a full picture of the storm, it lacks the personal stories of its longer counterpart. Instead it focuses on the successful utilization of public shelters and the use of radio communication once telephone lines have been destroyed. As the film was likely to be shown at government displays promoting a national fallout shelter system, this concentration on actual instances of shelter occupation provided an excellent opportunity to highlight the value of a well planned emergency shelter network.
The Five Days of Betsy may be viewed in its entirety HERE.