NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - Earl Armstrong thinks back to a dangerous walk, “About halfway down I said I hope the road is still there down on that other end because if it wasn’t, we were going to have to swim.”
Fifty years later his battle with the fury of Camille is still fresh. He remembers trying to reach a safe haven after his Pilottown home started drifting in the wind and water.
Three men from one family all hurricane veterans take on the full force of a category five storm an experience few people have ever witnessed.
Armstrong could drive a boat long before a car. He said, “This is where I lived. You see that old dead cypress tree on the bank. I planted that thing.” Pointing to a tall, decaying tree on the banks as we pulled up to the island’s dock in his boat.
From Venice in Plaquemines Parish a 20-minute ride down the Mississippi River takes you to Pilottown.
Armstrong said, “This is the walkway that goes onto Pilottown. You can walk from one end to the other.”
The path through the woods was once main street. Armstrong said, “I would come back to this place yeah. It's something you don't forget.”
Many think of Pilottown as just a place to rest while folks do their jobs, but this was once a vibrant community.
Pilottown is where river pilots who navigate vessels from the Gulf upriver would await their assignments. Armstrong's family roots run deep there and when he married, he built his own home.
Standing in front of the property he said, “I had a walkway going into my place and I planted that tree and everything there. We were here. Right here when Camille hit.”
It was early evening August 17th, 1969. Armstrong said, “It was blowing. I mean it was blowing.”
The 25-year-old, his father and uncle had planned to stay in his house, but the wind proved too much early on.
He said, “It took the house alongside my house and it cracked all the braces on my house. It started shaking and wobbling.” The wind raced through the rooms.
Armstrong said, “Something had busted in the back. All the clothes and stuff that was in the room in the back was coming through the hall and going to the front. It blew the windows out.”
They abandoned the house for one of the two pilot stations. He said, “Really like where this tree is here back about 100 feet. That's how far we went on that road to get to that station.” Describing the half mile trek with Camille already raging.
Armstrong said, ”When we got there it looked like we was in the wrong place again. It’s been there for all these storms. Forty-seven, Flossy, Betsy, all of them and before that so we felt safe to be in there, but as time passed after it got dark it started to blowing so hard.”
Nineteen people took refuge there.
Armstrong said, “They had a 5-gallon jug of water on the table. I told my dad look at the water in that jug. It looked like somebody had the neck of the jug shaking it. The whole place was shaking bad.”
“All the old people talked about the 1947 storm was the worst storm that ever hit and we were all sitting on the floor with our backs against the wall and I was sitting by my uncle and I asked him ‘So Uncle George you think that 1947 storm was bad as this?’ He didn't even look at me he just shook his head. He said, ‘No this is bad,’” Armstrong recalled.
He said, “Daylight the next morning it looked just like this. The sun was shining you know, but there wasn't nothing much left.”
Armstrong said, “It worked out that everything worked good other than we lost our houses and everything, but as long as you don't lose your life or lose a friend or see somebody hurt you doing good.”
Armstrong's pregnant wife Lynn, who was due on the 17th with their first son, rode out the storm in New Orleans with their girls.
Armstrong said, “I was down here about a week after Camille had passed helping to get cattle out the marsh and try to get it back out on safe land and I was out here by the dock and on one of the boats and a pilot come in. He walked up to me and said congratulations. I said for what? He said you got a little boy. I said come on. That was Jimmy. That’s exactly how I found out. That’s true. My wife just shakes her head when she hears that.”
Camille didn't keep people from rebuilding. The concrete walkway finished in 1972 shows the people planned to be here for a long time. Armstrong said, “No. Oh no. No Camille didn't scare them.”
Armstrong decided to come back. He said, “We built back right here. We had to leave because we had three children in school, and it was getting to where it just wasn’t enough children for the school you know so we had to leave and go to Venice in 1974.
Without the school, young families moved north. Pilottown’s population dwindled and a combination of wetland loss and Katrina is what finally reduced the town to rubble.
Armstrong said, “People came here and built some little places for fishing you know, but the main people never did come back after everything blew away.”
The fishing camps, a new river pilot's station and a walkway rising through the wilderness are all that’s left.
Armstrong said, “This is the last end of it right here. We were fortunate to live in a place that you really liked and even though we lost it. It's still here.”
A ghost town near the mouth of the Mississippi for some, but still home for Armstrong.