David Remnick: How Presidents and citizens react to disaster





On September 10, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson had lunch in the Roosevelt Room—the “Fish Room,” as F.D.R. called it—with several aides and half a dozen ambassadors of modest-sized countries. Then he returned to the Oval Office for a routine round of meetings and telephone calls—a fairly ordinary, crowded day amid the growing crisis of the war in Vietnam. At 2:36 p.m., according to copies of Johnson’s daily diaries, the President took a call from Senator Russell Long, of Louisiana. The day before, Hurricane Betsy had made landfall on the Gulf Coast. Storm gusts were up to a hundred and sixty miles an hour, and in New Orleans levees had been breached, causing much of the city to flood overnight, especially the neighborhoods of Bywater, Pontchartrain Park, and the largely black and impoverished Ninth Ward. The Army Corps of Engineers later reported as many as eighty-one deaths, a quarter-million people evacuated, and water levels of up to nine feet. Hurricane Betsy was the worst disaster to strike New Orleans since the cholera epidemic of 1849 and the yellow-fever epidemic of 1905.

Russell Long, the son of Huey Long and an old friend of Johnson’s in the Senate, had a simple goal. He wanted to convince the President of the urgency of the crisis and have him come immediately to Louisiana. Their conversation is rich with emotional and political manipulation. Long made it clear to Johnson that to delay, or to send a subordinate, could easily have consequences in the 1968 election:

Senator Long: Mr. President, aside from the Great Lakes, the biggest lake in America is Lake Pontchartrain. It is now drained dry. That Hurricane Betsy picked the lake up and put it inside New Orleans and Jefferson Parish, the Third [Congressional] District. . . . If I do say it, our people are just like . . . It’s like my home—The whole damn home’s been destroyed, but that’s all right. My wife and kids are still alive, so it’s O.K. Mr. President, we have really had it down there, and we need your help.
President Johnson: All right. You got it.
Long: Well, now, if I do say it . . . we’ve lost only one life so far. Why we haven’t lost more I can’t say. . . . For example, that damn big four-hundred-year-old tree fell on top of my house. My wife and kids were, thank God, in the right room. So we’re still alive. I don’t need no federal aid. But, Mr. President, my people—Oh, they’re in tough shape. . .
. If I do say it, you could elect Hale Boggs and every guy you’d want to elect in the path of this hurricane just by handling yourself right.
Now, if you want to go to Louisiana right now— You lost that state last year. You could pick it up just like looking at it right now by going down there as the President just to see what happened. . . . Just go, and say, “My God, this is horrible! . . . These federally constructed levees that Hale Boggs and Russell Long built is the only thing that saved five thousand lives.” See now, if you want to do that you can do it right now. Just pick one state up like looking at it—you lost it last time. If you’d do that you’d sack them up. [Louisiana congressman] Ed Willis is sitting on this telephone and he knows like I do that all you’ve got to do is just make a generous gesture, he’d get reëlected, a guy that’s for you.
Johnson: Russell, I sure want to. I’ve got a hell of a two days that I’ve got scheduled. Let me look and see what I can back out of and get into and so on and so forth and let me give you a ring back. If I can’t go, I’ll put the best man I got there.
Long: So now listen, we are not the least bit interested in your best man.
. . . I’m just a Johnson man. Let’s—
Johnson: I know that. I know that.
Long: . . . Just make it a stopover. . . . You go to Louisiana right now, land at Moisant Airport. [Imagining a news story] “The President was very much upset about the horrible destruction and damage done to this city of New Orleans, lovely town. The town that everybody loves.” If you go there right now, Mr. President, they couldn’t beat you if Eisenhower ran.
Johnson: Um-hmm. Let me think about it and call you back.

Johnson hung up. He met with Bill Moyers, Larry O’Brien, J. Edgar Hoover, and others. He accepted an award from the leaders of the World Convention of Churches of Christ. Then, at 5:03 p.m., he boarded a helicopter on the South Lawn, and it ferried him to Andrews Air Force Base. From there the President—along with Russell Long and Representative Hale Boggs, the key congressional powers in Louisiana, and officials from the Red Cross and the Army Corps of Engineers—flew to New Orleans on Air Force One. “The President spent a good deal of the time talking w/ Senator Long and Cong. Hale Boggs during the flight,” the diary says. “Also worked in his bedroom w/ [his assistants] on mail that had been taken on the flight. Afterwards, the President napped for about 30 minutes before arrival in New Orleans.”

Even at the airport, Johnson began to get a sense of the damage wrought by Betsy. “Parts of the roofing of the terminal were torn away and several of the large windows were broken,” the diary reads. “The members of the Presidential party had seen from the air a preview of the city—water over 3/4 of the city up to the eaves of the homes, etc.” At the urging of the mayor of New Orleans—a diminutive conservative Democrat named Victor Hugo Schiro, whom Johnson referred to as “Little Mayor”—the President decided to tour the flooded areas. His motorcade stopped on a bridge spanning the Industrial Canal, in the eastern part of the city, and from there the Presidential party saw whole neighborhoods engulfed by floods. They could see, according to the diary, that “people were walking along the bridge where they had disembarked from the boats that had brought them to dry land. Many of them were carrying the barest of their possessions and many of them had been sitting on top of their houses waiting for rescue squads to retrieve the families and carry them to dry land.” Johnson talked with a seventy-four-year-old black man named William Marshall and asked about what had happened and how he was getting along. As the conversation ended, Marshall said, “God bless you, Mr. President. God ever bless you.”

In the Ninth Ward, Johnson visited the George Washington Elementary School, on St. Claude Avenue, which was being used as a shelter. “Most of the people inside and outside of the building were Negro,” the diary reads. “At first, they did not believe that it was actually the President.” Johnson entered the crowded shelter in near-total darkness; there were only a couple of flashlights to lead the way.

“This is your President!” Johnson announced. “I’m here to help you!”

The diary describes the shelter as a “mass of human suffering,” with people calling out for help “in terribly emotional wails from voices of all ages. . . . It was a most pitiful sight of human and material destruction.” According to an article by the historian Edward F. Haas, published fifteen years ago in the Gulf Coast Historical Review, Johnson was deeply moved as people approached and asked him for food and water; one woman asked Johnson for a boat so that she could look for her two sons, who had been lost in the flood....


... At the Reliant Center, in Houston, Patricia Valentine, a fifty-four-year-old woman from Treme, a black neighborhood near the French Quarter, told me that her area was “waist high” in water and the restaurants down the street “got nothing.” She was sitting in a wheelchair and said that she had no intention of returning home. “They can have New Orleans,” she said. “It’s a toxic-waste dump now. I was in Betsy forty years ago: September, 1965. And the levee broke. What are we, stupid? Born yesterday? It’s the same people drowning today as back then. They were trying to move us out anyway. They want a bigger tourist attraction, and we black folks ain’t no tourist attraction.”

The best-known writer to come from the Ninth Ward is Kalamu ya Salaam. A poet, playwright, and civil-rights activist, Salaam used to go by the name of Val Ferdinand. When I told Salaam what I was hearing in New Iberia and Houston, he laughed, but not dismissively. He said, “The real question is why not?” He recalled that in 1927, in the midst of the worst flooding of the Mississippi River in recorded history, the white city fathers of New Orleans—the men of the Louisiana Club, the Boston Club, and the Pickwick Club—won permission from the federal government to dynamite the Caernarvon levee, downriver from the city, to keep their interests dry. But destroying the levee also insured that the surrounding poorer St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes would flood. Thousands of the trappers who lived there lost their homes and their livelihoods. The promise of compensation was never fulfilled. That, plus the persistent rumors of what may or may not have happened during Hurricane Betsy, Salaam said, has had a lingering effect. “So when I heard on TV that there was a breach at the Seventeenth Street levee, I figured they’d done it again,” he said. “Or, let’s just say, I didn’t automatically assume that it was accidental.”

Lolis Eric Elie, an African-American columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, told me he didn’t believe that the levees were blown deliberately—“and most black folks with some education or money don’t, either”—but he could “easily” understand why so many were suspicious.
“Blacks, in a state of essential slavery, built those very levees that were blown up in 1927. When the ships came to rescue people, whites made damn sure not to rescue blacks in Mississippi because of their fear that the blacks wouldn’t return to work the farms. If black life is not valued—and isn’t that what you were seeing for days in New Orleans?—then the specifics of the explanations are irrelevant. You begin to say to yourself, ‘How do you aid tsunami victims instantly and only three or four days later get to New Orleans? What explanation other than race can there be?’ I believe the real explanation is manifold, but I can understand how people start believing these things.”...

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