Miller Center

LBJ and the Response to Hurricane Betsy


On the evening of September 9, 1965, Hurricane Betsy came ashore near Grand Isle, Louisiana, as a Category 4 storm, with the National Weather Service reporting wind gusts near 160 mph. As the storm tracked inland, the city of New Orleans was hit with 110 mph winds, a storm surge around 10 feet, and heavy rain. Betsy devastated low-lying areas on the eastern side of the city and eventually led to the expansion of an already impressive levee system to protect a city that lay mostly below sea-level. After the storm passed, Louisiana Senator Russell Long, the son of the legendary Senator and Governor Huey Long, called President Johnson to get the President to tour the devastated areas. In Long’s unique style, he let the LBJ know that the Betsy had severely damaged his own home and had nearly killed his family.

LBJ arrived in New Orleans five hours after talking to Senator Long. Reporters noted that he was shocked by the suffering and in particular by thirst of survivors in one shelter. He immediately announced that the “red tape be cut,” and he took personal control of operations, which he continued—according to the Washington Post—“day and night.”

President Johnson and Russell Long

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September 10, 1965, 2:26 P.M.

Citation #8847, WH6509.03. LBJ Library

Senator Russell Long:  . . . Ed [Willis],pick up. Mr. President, I’ve got Ed Willis here. He’s my congressman from the Third DistrictMr. 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 and the Third [Congressional] District. Now, you have . . . 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 OK. Mr. President, we have really had it down there, and we need your help.

President Johnson: All right. You got it.

Senator Russell Long: Well, now, if I do say it . . . we’ve only lost one life so far. Why we haven’t lost more I can’t say. [unclear] for example, that damn big 400-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.

[Louisiana Congressman] Ed Willis is here. If I do say it, you could elect Hale Boggs and every guy you’d want to elect in the path of this hurricane by just 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. Now if you want to you could . . . you could save yourself a campaign speech. Just go there right now. 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 5,000 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 do that you’d sack them up. 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 re-elected, a guy that’s for you.

President 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.

Senator Russell Long: So now listen, we are not the least bit interested in your best man. As far as we’re concerned, I’m just a Johnson man. Let’s—

President Johnson: I know that. I know that.

Senator Russell Long: Let’s us not kid ourselves now. When I run for office next time, I’m going to be on the same dodge you’re going to be on. And frankly, if you go to Louisiana right now, you might be . . . just make it a stopover. We’ll [unclear]. 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.

President Johnson: Um-hmm. Let me think about it and call you back.

Long: OK. [Unclear.]

President Johnson: I love you. Thank you, Ed. I love you.

President Johnson and Buford Ellington

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September 10, 1965, 3:35 P.M.

Citation #8848, WH6509.03. LBJ Library

President Johnson: Hello?

Secretary: Governor Ellington on 9-0

Governor Buford Ellington: Mr. President, we would suggest Secretary Freeman of Agriculture.

President Johnson: Wait a minute. Let me write these down here. Let me call Marvin [Watson] and see if he can get on here.

A 14-second pause ensues.

President Johnson: Marvin will be on in just a minute

Governor Buford Ellington: All right, sir. There are no deaths down there.

President Johnson: Told me one.

Governor Buford Ellington: Well, it wasn’t from the storm though.

President Johnson: It wasn’t?

Governor Buford Ellington: No sir, according to our reports.

President Johnson: All right, you got your pencil there Marvin and take notes. [unclear] Governor Freeman. [with Watson acknowledging throughout]

Governor Buford Ellington: Bureau of Public Roads, [Federal Highway Administrator] Rex Whitton; Public Health Service Dr. [Luther] Terry [Surgeon General, Publich Health Service] or Dr. [James] Hundley, H-U-N-D-L-E-Y [Assistant Surgeon General for Operations]; Corps of Engineers Major General Jackson—that’s the man that works with us on that. American Red Cross [President] General [James F.] Collins or [Vice President] Robert F. Shea always accompanies us. Small Business [Administration], Gene Foley. Now it’s a big damage down there to sugar cane crops and other crops it might be well to take with us Secretary [Labor Willard] Wirtz. That would be all that would be involved in any of the recovery.

President Johnson: You?

Governor Buford Ellington: Oh yes. A fact of business that I’d like to have about three from my shop.

President Johnson: All right, who?

Governor Buford Ellington: Bob Phillips, Dryden, and myself.

President Johnson: Who is Phillips?

Governor Buford Ellington: Phillips is head of the disaster program over here. He runs it. Mr. President, do you figuring on going this afternoon?

President Johnson: Yeah

Governor Buford Ellington: You still got heavy rain down there, I understand. I’d have to recheck on that or let your pilots check on that because I doubt from what we got about an hour ago you’ll be able to see anything. I actually don’t think this warrants a trip, but you’re the boss.

President Johnson: Well I . . . Here’s my problem, damnit, when I ask a man to do something I want him to do it. [Governor Ellington acknowledging throughout] And I’ve been asking Russell Long all year, and he’s had a lot of things he didn’t want to do at all, and he’s an emotional [two seconds deleted in accordance with the deed of gift].

Governor Buford Ellington: [Laughs]That’s what I think. I’ve talked to him

President Johnson: Today?

Governor Buford Ellington: YeahI’ve been in touch with his office all day. [Unclear.]

President Johnson: Well, he . . .  I told him if I couldn’t go it I’d send Governor Ellington. He said I don’t want anybody to go but you, and by God I want you to go! [Ellington laughs heartily] And Hale Boggs is the same way and he wants me to go. And [Louisiana Congressman] Ed Willis is [unclear] . . . and they’re kinda . . .  they got trouble with school plans, and they’re segregationists, and they feel like nobody cares about them, and they voted against us and they feel like they’re kind on the outside. I feel about them like a 17-year-old girl; I want them to know they’re loved. And . . . I have to pet Luci [Baines Johnson] sometimes when I damn sure don’t want to because I don’t want her to run away from home.

Governor Buford Ellington: [Laughs] Well, you let us know what you want done.

President Johnson: How does it feel to be an old long whiskered grandpa?

Governor Buford Ellington: It feels pretty good Mr. President. You won’t be sorry.

President Johnson: You’re going to . . . What you’re going to do is cut down your work schedule

Governor Buford Ellington: [laughs] I could cut it down and still be doing plenty.

President Johnson: How you going to teach her to talk over the phone?

Governor Buford Ellington: [laughs] I don’t know. It’s the only time I’ll ever see them.

President Johnson: I call up . . . I call up old [Courtenay] Lynda Valenti every night and try to teach her on the phone. She just grins and won’t talk. Have you ever seen that Lynda?

Governor Buford Ellington: Yes, I was there when she was born.

President Johnson: I mean this . . . my little Lynda Valenti. Courtenay Valenti.

Governor Buford Ellington: Oh yes, of course I do

President Johnson: Well I hope yours is as cute as she is. She’s—

Governor Buford Ellington: You know I named her Melinda.

President Johnson: No, I didn’t know that.

Governor Buford Ellington: Yes sir.

President Johnson: Well wonderful.

Governor Buford Ellington: I say I did. My daughter did. I didn’t have nothing to do with it.

President Johnson: Well wonderful, wonderful. How’s your . . . Is your daughter alright?

Governor Buford Ellington: Wonderful doing fine

President Johnson: That’s good.

Governor Buford Ellington: Doing great.

President Johnson: Well, we’ll decide this thing. We’ll check our pilot’s reports.

Governor Buford Ellington: Well, I’d be sure and check that weather out good because our last report there were heavy rains [unclear]

President Johnson: Where would we want to go, New Orleans…

Governor Buford Ellington: Baton Rouge, yes, sir. That it.

President Johnson: And Baton Rouge. Want to ask him anything Marvin? [Watson hangs up.]

I love those shirts. I told them they got to put a half an inch on the pockets and a button in the center, so I can hold my glasses in them.

Governor Buford Ellington: Well they told me to hold them up for you [unclear].

President Johnson: They are just because I don’t want anyone to know it. But just between you and me I’m going on rather an intensive diet.

Governor Buford Ellington: Well don’t let it upset your nerves now. Hell.

President Johnson: Well it does, and you can’t do anything about it.

Ellington: [laughing heartily] I know what I mean.

President Johnson: It does. But I’ve lost 13 pounds

Governor Buford Ellington: Well, I told them to hold up until I know further and I told them about the cuffs and about the pocket

President Johnson: Well that’s good. Thank you my friend I’ll call you back soon as I know.

They then say good-bye.

President Johnson, Robert Phillips, and Senator Russell Long

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September 14, 1965, 6:10 P.M

Citation #8858, WH6509.03. LBJ Library

President Johnson: Mr. Phillips, this is Lyndon Johnson. Senator Long is here in the office, and we have reviewed the problems that are a result from this terrible disaster that we’ve suffered there, and we have gone from agency to agency beginning with the Corps of Engineers, and the Veterans Administration, the Food and Drug Administration, Agricultural Department, Small Business Administration, all the services—Army, Navy, and Air Force—the National Command Center, Department of Agriculture, Interior, Maritime, Housing and Home Finance, and Bureau of Yards and Docks and Navy, Federal Communications, Federal Aviation, Bureau of Public Roads, Treasury, Commerce, and Interstate Commerce Commission.

Now, in times of distress, it’s necessary that all the members of the family get together and lay aside any individual problems they have or any personal grievances and try to take care of the sick mother, and we’ve got a sick mother on our hands. And as I said the other night when I was there, we’ve got to cut out all the red tape. We’ve got to work around the clock. We’ve got to ignore hours. We’ve got to bear in mind that we exist for only one purpose and that’s to the greatest good for the greatest number. And the people who’ve lost their homes, people who have lost their furniture, the people who have lost some of their crops and even their families are not going to be very interested in any individual differences between federal or state or local agencies.

So I hope that all the government people can put their shoulder to the wheel without regard to hours, without regard to red tape. Bring to these people the kind of assistance they need in this emergency which is worthy of a great government and a great country. And I want to thank all the local officials and the city and county and state and parish officials, and I want to assure you that up here, if you have any problems, well, let me know about them. We’ll get them straightened out. And down there, I don’t want any problems to . . . that the . . . that Betsy didn’t create to exist. I don’t—

Robert Phillips: Who will follow those orders, sir?

President Johnson: Well, here’s Senator Long. He wants to say a word to you, and we’ll do the job here. We expect you all to do it there

Robert Phillips: Yes, Mr. President.

Russell Long: Thank you so much, Mr. Phillips. You’re doing a great job down there.

Robert Phillips: Thank you, Senator.

Russell Long: And I know you’ve got your problems. We don’t . . . We’re not trying to make you violate the law, but insofar as you can find a way to make the law bend to the problem, well that’s what we want you to do.

Robert Phillips: I think I understand, Senator.

Russell Long: And as I say there’s one more thing about it: we’ve got some things in these laws indicated that have to do with private enterprise where we try to protect them, but it’s time for private enterprise to make their move to help the people, too, because they’ve got their place to fulfill, and they shouldn’t’ play the part of a dog in the manger. They . . . 

Now’s their time when they ought to be doing the extra hour of duty, and I think they’re doing it. I’m very proud of all these people who kept their stores open on Sunday and at other times after hours and folks who provide their services below the cost of service or sometimes giving their services away for free to help their fellow man. It’s a fine thing that they’re doing and insofar as some few people who want to chisel and cheat and take advantage of the unfortunate conditions of their neighbor, I think we ought to all remember who those people were when the time comes later on when they need us.

Robert Phillips: We’re going to work with everybody, Senator, along the lines that the President has told us to and encourages us to do  . . . and we will do.

Russell Long: Thanks so much. God bless you.

Robert Phillips: Bye.

Further Resources:

Draft transcripts by Christina Saunders and Kent Germany. Original audio and photographs courtesy of LBJ Library.