I have always been an avid LBJ fan. Aside from the Vietnam War, which I recognize is a huge ‘aside,’ he was probably the second greatest president of the 20th century after President FDR, the hero he fashioned his nickname after. He is most famous for the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act and the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid. However, achievements also include the Immigration and Nationality Services Act, which allowed non-white foreigners to legally immigrate to the U.S in significant numbers for the first time, the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (PBS and NPR), Head Start, any many other landmark bills in environmental, educational and anti-poverty policies.
One of my favorite LBJ stories, however, involves his response to Hurricane Betsy. Forty six years ago today, Betsy ominously crossed the Gulf Coast, crashing into New Orleans the next morning. The entire 9th Ward was submerged, and much of the city was wrecked by a storm as seismologically powerful as Katrina.
Senator Russell Long phoned the White House frantically that the situation was worse than anything the locals had imagined. LBJ responded by boarding Air Force One five hours later. While walking the streets, he barked out commands, such as requests that local soft drink companies send their liquids down, as there was no power to boil water. When he heard word that children had taken refuge on the second floor of a school, he grabbed a giant flashlight, swung the door open and yelled, “Children, listen up, your president is here!”
In the aftermath of Betsy, LBJ passed legislation directing the Army Corps of Engineers to take responsibility for the New Orleans levee system, which failed so dramatically in 2005 after decades of neglect by multiple administrations.
My friend Beth and I took a weekend away from work in Biloxi to drive through Texas, and we stopped at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, where I requested all of their Hurricane Betsy files. It was a real treat. For further reading, this site captures the story pretty well, and includes an audio clip of Senator Long’s call to the President, as this site’s pretty thorough too.
Six years after Katrina, and days after Irene, it is appropriate to salute a president whose disaster response leadership was a model to his successors. Thanks for reading.